UN calls attention to rising number of dementia cases, urges early detection

Dementia is caused by a variety of diseases and injuries that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease or stroke, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO/Cathy Greenblat
Dementia is caused by a variety of diseases and injuries that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease or stroke, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

UN calls attention to rising number of dementia cases, urges early detection

The number of people with dementia is projected to double to 65.7 million by 2030, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said today, noting that lack of diagnosis remains a major problem even in high-income countries, where only a fifth to half of cases are routinely recognized.

Treating and caring for the estimated 35.6 million with dementia at present costs the world more than $604 billion per year, including the cost of providing health and social care, as well the reduction or loss of income for patients and their caregivers, WHO said in a report produced jointly with the Alzheimer’s Disease International, entitled ‘Dementia: a public health priority.’

According to WHO, dementia is a syndrome, usually of a chronic nature, caused by a variety of brain illnesses that affect memory, thinking, behaviour and ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and possibly contributes to up to 70 per cent of cases.

Only eight countries worldwide currently have national programmes in place to address dementia, according to the report, which recommends that programmes focus on improving early diagnosis; raising public awareness about the disease and reducing stigma; and providing better care and more support to caregivers.

“We need to increase our capacity to detect dementia early and to provide the necessary health and social care,” said the Assistant Director-General responsible for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health at WHO, Oleg Chestnov. “Health-care workers are often not adequately trained to recognize dementia.”

The study highlights a general lack of information and understanding about dementia, a factor that fuels stigma, contributing to the social isolation of both patients and their caregivers and leading to delays in seeking diagnosis, health assistance and social support.

“Public awareness about dementia, its symptoms, the importance of getting a diagnosis, and the help available for those with the condition is very limited,” said the Executive Director of Alzheimer’s Disease International, Marc Wortmann. “It is now vital to tackle the poor levels of public awareness and understanding, and to drastically reduce the stigma associated with dementia.”

The report stresses the need to strengthening care for people with dementia, noting that in every region of the world, most care giving is provided by informal caregivers – spouses, adult children, other family members and friends.

People who care for dementia patients are themselves prone to mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and are often in poor physical health themselves, according to the report. They also suffer economically because they may be forced to stop working, cut back on work, or take less demanding jobs.

The report recommends involving existing caregivers in designing programmes to provide better support for people with dementia and those who look after them.