Dementia Epidemic

The number of people living with dementia worldwide is exploding, particularly in poor nations, a new report shows.

In data to be presented next week at the first G8 Dementia Summit in London, Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI) found that an estimated 44 million people now suffer from the condition, a 17 percent rise since 2009. 

Dementia, an umbrella term that includes Alzheimer's disease and other less common disorders, destroys a person's mind and often drains his or her life savings. Care can become extremely expensive as a patient deteriorates, and experts are worried about how this will impact people in countries with already limited resources.

The report shows that the epidemic will spread rapidly in the coming years as people worldwide live longer because dementia becomes increasingly common with age.

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Is a 'Breakthrough' on the Horizon?

By 2030, ADI predicts that 76 million people around the world will live with the incurable illness, with the number ballooning to 135 million by 2050. By that time, 71 percent of those patients will reside in low- and middle-income countries. 

There is no cure for dementia, though some medications help slow the progression of the disease if started early. New drugs are in the pipeline, however, and a researcher in the U.K. has grabbed headlines by hailing a “breakthrough” in the next five years.

Matthew Baumgart, Senior Director of Public Policy for the U.S.-based Alzheimer’s Association, said he hopes that prediction holds true but believes it is optimistic. 

Five trials of Alzheimer's prevention drugs are set to begin soon in the U.S., he said. Each will take about two to three years, and require replication. Actually getting a product to market in five years could be difficult.

Laura Phipps, a representative of Alzheimer's Research UK, said that her charity is investing in new drug discovery work to speed up clinical trials. “In the next five years, if we don't have a treatment from current trials, we will have more potential new treatments coming through towards the clinic,” she told Healthline.

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Call for a Global Fight Against Dementia

The ADI report highlights dementia as a serious global problem at a time when much work must still be done to combat it. 

“Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are in a similar place to HIV and cancer 20 to 30 years ago, when fear, ignorance, and stigma prevailed,” Baumgart told Healthline. “But history shows major diseases can be made manageable, even preventable, with sufficient political will and research investment. We stopped polio.”

The ADI report calls for launching programs aimed at improving public health and fitness, a global commitment to funding dementia research, and better implementation of clinical trials worldwide. 

“Collaboration is needed between countries, companies, advocacy groups, people with dementia and their families, and the public to demand and discover answers to this monumental problem,” Baumgart said in a statement. “By accelerating these alliances, the G8 summit has the potential to be a key milestone and turning point in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.” 

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More Work Needed in the U.S., Too

Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer's Association, will attend the summit next week.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the advocacy organization is calling for proper funding and implementation of the National Plan to Address Alzheimer's, an ambitious plan to effectively treat and prevent Alzheimer's by 2025. 

An additional $100 million is needed in fiscal year 2014 for Alzheimer's research, education, outreach, and community support, Baumgart said. 

According to the Alzheimer's Association, five million Americans currently live with the disease, and one in three seniors dies with some form of dementia. In the U.S. alone, the illness cost $203 billion this year, according to the group.

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