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Dementia Cases to Triple by 2050 as World Ages

An unidentified man suffering from Alzheimer's disease sleeps all day before passing away in a nursing home in the Netherlands, July 2008. (file photo)
An unidentified man suffering from Alzheimer's disease sleeps all day before passing away in a nursing home in the Netherlands, July 2008. (file photo)
Lisa Schlein

A new report says the number of people living with dementia worldwide will triple by 2050, from nearly 36 million to more than 115 million.

Dementia is not only a problem for people in high-income countries. A report by the World Health Organization and Alzheimer’s Disease International says dementia affects people in all countries, with more than half living in low and middle-income countries. And, by 2050, this figure is likely to rise to more than 70 percent.

Alzheimer’s Disease International Executive Director Marc Wortmann says by any measure the statistics are frightening.

“There is a new case now in every four seconds, a new case of dementia in the world. Only 10 years ago, it was calculated at one in every seven seconds, so it is speeding up. And if you look into the future projections, it may be close to one in every second by the year 2050.  So, we need to act. We need to do something to stop this epidemic,” said Wortmann.

Dementia is increasing because people are living longer. But the report says dementia is not a normal part of growing old. Most older people do not have this condition.

Dementia is a brain disorder caused by a variety of brain illnesses that affect memory, thinking and the ability to perform everyday activities.

WHO Mental Health and Substance Abuse Director Shekhar Saxena said Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 70 percent of dementia cases.  

“Dementia is often not recognized. It is commonly mistaken for an age-related decline in functioning because it can mimic age-related problems, and also it progresses slowly. Even in high-income countries, only one-fifth to one-half of the cases of dementia are routinely recognized. This percentage is obviously much lower in middle and low-income countries,” said Saxena.

Professor of Epidemiological Psychiatry at Kings College London, Martin Prince, said there is a misperception that dementia is not a problem in poorer countries.

“In Africa, again, there is relatively little information. There have been some more studies done recently in western Africa, which, I think give the lie to the notion that Alzheimer’s disease is very rare amongst all the people in Africa," Prince said. "There are fewer older people because life expectancy is shorter, particularly with the ravages of HIV. But, amongst people who live to old age, the prevalence of dementia looks quite similar to high-income countries.”  

Dementia is not yet a huge problem in developing countries, but that is because few people live more than 75 years. This is expected to change with population growth and improved health.  

WHO reports more than $600 billion a year is spent in treating and caring for people with dementia and that figure is expected to rise astronomically. Health officials call dementia a ticking time bomb, but only eight countries have dementia strategies in place.

The report recommends nations set up programs that focus on improving early diagnosis, raising public awareness about the disease and reducing stigma, as well as providing better care and more support to caregivers.   

There is no cure for dementia, but health officials say a great deal can be done to support and improve the lives of people with dementia, their families and caregivers.

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