We often view Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia disorders as family tragedies. Certainly devastating for everyone involved, but small events nonetheless. But when you begin to add up all those individual cases nationwide, and then again around the world, dementia begins to take on a terrifying new scope. According to researchers, there are currently 50 million people worldwide suffering from some form of dementia. As the world continues to age, researchers predict that number will rise to more than 150 million sufferers worldwide by 2050. As a means of comparison, since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, 70 million people have been infected and an estimates 36 million people were living with AIDS at the end of 2016. To make matter worse, there’s currently no cure for dementia and doctors have few effective options to even treat sufferers.
A Global Dementia Crisis
Some governments are better prepared for this future than others. In Hong Kong, for example, officials fear a “dementia tsunami” because its society is ill-equipped to deal with the large number of anticipated cases. By 2050, one-third of city residents over age 80 will have the disease. And some fear this will prompt a care crisis as gap-filled legal and medical systems struggle to meet patient’s needs. This comes as the results of a complex web of societal factors including a poor understanding of dementia itself, little or no awareness of legal tools like advance directives, and a reluctance of older citizens to “burden” their younger relatives. Many healthcare professionals are now lobbying for a massive PR campaign to help educate the population about the looming crisis.
The situation is a bit better in the United States. There’s a better general understanding of dementia, and advance directives are now quite common. But dementia sufferers and their families still face tremendous financial hardships due to some of the more peculiar parts of the government’s existing safety net. Medicare, the government-funded insurance program providing medical insurance for older Americans, is structured under a fee-for-service model.
This system works well for older Americans who need treatment, like cancer patients. But dementia sufferers don’t require treatments, because none exist. But at their worst, they do require round-the-clock care. And Medicare won’t pay for memory or in-home care services. So that leaves many patient’s families to undertake these massive care responsibilities themselves, and to also bear an immense financial burden. The coming dementia wave has many advocating for changes within the Medicare system, so that in-home care costs would be covered. Thus alleviating families from these onerous financial and caregiving responsibilities.
Advocates Urge Governments to Act on Dementia
In the face of this sobering crisis, many of the world’s leading Alzheimer’s and dementia experts are urging world leaders to put dementia at the top of the agenda at next years’ G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Activists want the world’s 20 richest nations to launch a “Global Fund Against Alzheimer’s” that pursues the following goals:
- Increased focus on Alzheimer’s and support progress toward the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goals.
- International collaboration on the development of biomarkers and diagnostics.
- International linkages between regional clinical trial systems.
- Increased regulatory coordination to speed new medicines to those in need.
- Greater support for genome-wide association studies.
- Increased funding for drug development and evidenced-based care practices.
Activists and researchers are hopeful because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will assume the G20 presidency for the first time next year. Japan’s demographics make it especially vulnerable to the high cost of dementia care. Currently 27% of its population is older than 65. And if nothing changes, the country will suffer profound health and economic impacts over the coming years.
What Can We do Here at Home?
If Alzheimer’s disease or dementia hasn’t yet touched your life, it likely will soon. But, we’re not helpless in the face of it. Increased federal funding could do wonders to advance research and treatments to fight this terrible disease. Just this week, 38 senators asked the Senate Committee on Appropriations to make increased funding for Alzheimer’s disease a priority for fiscal year 2019. Senators say that despite a dramatic increase in funding, they’re still short of their goal of being able to treat and prevent Alzheimer’s disease by 2025.
You can help that goal become a reality by contacting your senators and congressional representatives and telling them to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research. Although we may experience this disease as individuals, our only hope in fighting will be as a unified group. The future of the world is depending on it.