Age & Reason
Economics of Alzheimer’s: More Attention Needed
Saturday, April 2, 2011 - 4:08pm
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This week in Toronto, 1500 delegates from 60 countries gathered for the 21st annual Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) conference.  A stroll among the booths, meeting rooms and gathering places offered a glimpse into the most daunting socioeconomic challenge of the 21st century, as well as a largely hidden driver of the entitlement explosion that government budgets now face. By any metric, Alzheimer’s is a disease of horrific proportions.

The numbers of those at risk for the disease – one in two, over the age of 85 – will increase exponentially, due to longevity; the cost of care is multiplied by the impact of deteriorating conditions that linger for a decade or more; and there is a particularly severe burden on the poor, epecially in the poorest countries. Even today, as ADI’s 2010 groundbreaking research on disease costs  made clear, the $604 billion at one percent of global GDP is merely setting the stage for massive increases into mid-century as populations age. 

Longterm care strategies, individual help sessions, science and politics were all there.  Administrator Florence Lustman flew over from France to report on the third anniversary of the French Alzheimer’s plan, which other national chapters, including the Canadian hosts and the neighboring U.S., promised to use to press their governments. There was also a fascinating session on memory cafes, an innovation with noteworthy success in the Netherlands, Germany and other northern European countries. These cafes might have inspired the conference’s theme, “The Changing Face of Alzheimer’s,” which offered hope through more active engagement: “Alzheimer’s cafes are where people living with dementia and their [caregivers] can visit to support each other and share information… They create independence in the community.”

One particularly well-attended session, led by ADI chair Daisy Acosta of the Dominican Republic, was about the global politics of NCDs (non-communicable diseases). A United Nations summit on NCDs will be held this September, when the UN General Assembly opens, and delegates wondered why Alzheimer’s isn’t currently included among the array of diseases warranting important global attention. Delegates agreed to go back to their governments and urge inclusion.

Compassion for those with the debilitating illness was in abundance at the conference, which is not surprising. But equally apparent was the growing passion for advocacy and action on the Alzheimer’s front, based on what Hussain Jafri of Pakistan correctly called “an epidemic,” and which Richard Uwakwe of Nigeria referred to as the “time bomb waiting to explode” in the 21st century. If these community leaders have their way, Alzheimer’s will join diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease as topics of prominent discussion in New York in September, as more and more nations examine their fiscal responsibilities as related to the growth of their aging populations.

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.