Alzheimer's disease is a scourge that grows in public awareness as the population ages and more people are exposed to its debilitating effects.

That's why Congress and the administration agreed this year increased the appropriation for Alzheimer's research and education by $122 millino, to $550 million.

But a new study, published in the journal Neurology, demonstrates that funding must grow substantially to meet the challenge.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's Disease, of whom about 83,000 die each year.

The newly published study conducted by the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago estimated that Alzheimer's was a contributing factor in 503,000 deaths in 2010, about six times the number of deaths attributed directly to the disease.

CDC statistics are based primarily on death certificate data, which often list the immediate cause of death, such as pneumonia, without attributing Alzheimer's as the underlying cause.

The Rush researchers followed, for eight years, two populations comprising 2,566 older people. One was a community of nuns and priests and the other resided in retirement communities and senior housing facilities.

Over the course of the two studies, 559 participants developed Alzheimer's disease and 1,090 participants died. Those diagnosed with Alzheimer's were three times more likely to die than those without that diagnosis.

Extrapolated across the population, the results indicate that Alzheimer's is complicit in as many deaths as the nation's leading killers, heart disease and cancer.

As a public policy matter, the study should show lawmakers that Alzheimer's research is underfunded relative to the threat. Cancer research receives about $6 billion a year in federal research funds and HIV/AIDS research receives about $3 billion. In both cases, researchers have produced effective new treatments, whereas no new Alzheimer's drugs have entered the market in a decade.

Congress should fund Alzheimer's research at a level commensurate with its growing threat.