Global strides in healthcare are allowing people to live longer, resulting in more elderly people around the world. But an aging world is also expected to result in soaring numbers of people suffering from dementia, with the number of cases, estimated at 35.6 million today, projected to triple by 2050.
The dementia numbers are a paradox for medical progress. “The better we do, the more we expect to have problems with dementia and we need to be prepared for that,” Dr. Shekhar Saxena, the head of the World Health Organization's mental health division told the Associated Press.
The predicted proliferation of dementia will put new pressure on public health systems to improve care, according to a new report from the World Health Organization and Alzheimer's Disease International. Only eight countries have national programs to address dementia, including Australia, Denmark, France and Japan. The United States is not among them. Diagnosis is faulty and stigma has persisted.
Dementia degrades memory, thinking, behavior and everyday skills, often putting a heavy burden on families to care for loved ones suffering from the syndrome. Families and friends shoulder most of the estimated $604-billion cost of caring for people with dementia, including their own loss of income.
“The catastrophic cost of care drives millions of households below the poverty line,” Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, wrote in a foreword to the report.
The increase is expected to hit poorer nations especially hard in the coming decades. People living in low- and middle-income countries now make up 58% of dementia cases, a figure expected to rise to more than 70%.
Though millions of people around the world live with dementia, the syndrome is often diagnosed late or not at all, the report found. Only 20% to 50% of cases are routinely recognized, even in wealthy countries. Stigma often discourages people from getting diagnosed or treated.
The increase in dementia is just one of the anticipated effects of the graying of the globe. People above age 60, who now make up roughly 10% of the global population, are expected to make up 22% of the population in the next four decades, according to a report recently presented at the World Economic Forum, a phenomenon expected to affect medicine, markets, labor and culture.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A patient known only as John Doe because his dementia has made it impossible for authorities to determine his true identity dances in his room at a Chicago nursing home in October. Credit: Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune