Instances of dementia exploded in the last five years, bringing the current number of people affected worldwide to more than 46 million, a new report shows.
The report, titled “World Alzheimer Report 2015,” says nearly 60 percent of those with dementia live in underdeveloped countries. By 2050, half of those with the disease will live in Asia. Researchers from Alzheimer Disease International, a global coalition of Alzheimer-focused organizations, expect the numbers to rise with the identification of more cases and greying of the population.
Dementia, defined as a range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, strikes more than 3 million people over the age of 65 in the United States annually. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for at least 60 percent of the cases, making it the sixth leading cause of death domestically. The progressively degenerative disease, though currently incurable, can be managed with treatments and changes to one’s physical environment.
In a press release, Glenn Rees, Alzheimer Disease International chairperson, called on governments around the world to connect people with adequate treatment and develop a medical breakthrough. Researchers say that without it, the dementia-afflicted population will double every 20 years.
“We must use the findings of this report to advocate for action in international forums to fight back against the stigma of dementia and encourage the growth of dementia-friendly communities and countries,” Rees said. “This action should include timely diagnosis and post-diagnostic support and improved access to support and care.”
Despite the seemingly grim outlook, scientists have built upon prior knowledge to make some headway in mitigating symptoms of dementia. Research in decades past attributed Alzheimer’s to the damage of nerve cells by plaques and tangles — two abnormal brain structures. A study from University of California-Irvine suggested that increasing brain cell connections could reduce plaque’s presence on the brain. Subsequent research focused on lifestyle choices that could accelerate the disease, including sleep deprivation and consumption of grilled meat. Research has even found evidence that Alzheimer’s can be inherited via gene mutations on chromosomes 21, 14, and 1 — part of what’s known as Early Onset Familial Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists and advocates assert that such breakthroughs could bring forth new medicines.
Last year, Heather Snyder, PhD, director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Medical News Today that treatment could “involve a cocktail of medications aimed at several targets,” similar to therapies for cancer and HIV. Months later, researchers at Stanford University announced the development of medicine that could potentially prevent Alzheimer’s by boosting the brain’s immune response. A study in Australia earlier this year involved the use of ultrasound technology that clears the brain of harmful plaque buildup.
But scientists say more needs to be done, pointing out that racing against dementia’s proliferation will require a boost in funding for Alzheimer’s research. To the chagrin of advocates, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) doled out $504 million last year for the study of the disease compared to $674 million for breast cancer and $5 billion for cancer. In 2011, advocates unsuccessfully rallied behind the passage of the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Act, a law that, if passed, would have accelerated the development of treatments that prevent, cure, or slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Congress later changed its tune, increasing funding by $25 million earlier this year. Bipartisan House and Senate subcommittees approved another increase for NIH Alzheimer’s research grants last month in the amount of $300 million. But that doesn’t suffice for columnist Kathleen Parker, who argues for additional financial support — especially with dementia-related health care costs nearing $226 million, more than 50 percent of which strains the Medicaid and Medicare programs.
“Lest you feel overwhelmed by numbers — and demoralized by the reduction of human suffering to numerical values — suffice it to say that we are in a state of emergency,” columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in the Portland Press Herald last month. “Yet, even with this obvious urgency, relatively few resources have been dedicated to research for prevention and treatment compared to other chronic diseases. This, although Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”