Alzheimer's will be epidemic in 40 years

  • Olivia Fens

Alzheimer’s disease will reach epidemic proportions within 40 years unless new therapies can be developed.

According to leading experts in the field, Alzheimer’s and related dementia currently affects approximately 38,000 people in Ireland but, due to Ireland’s rapidly ageing population, that number is predicted to rise to 58,000 by 2021 and 104,000 by 2036.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and is a progressive and irreversible disease of the brain, characterised by loss of intellectual function, chronic memory loss, language deterioration and personality change.

The earliest symptom of Alzheimer’s is usually a problem with short-term memory.
Internationally, while death rates declined for most major diseases including heart disease and stroke between 2000 and 2004, Alzheimer’s deaths increased by 33%.

Prof Brian Lawlor, consultant psychiatrist for the elderly at St Patrick’s and St James’s, told a recent conference of more than 200 people that unless awareness of the disease is increased and the state funds research and innovation on cause, care and cure, Alzheimer’s disease will cause a global health crisis.

“Currently (in the UK) £289 is spent on research for every cancer sufferer while only £11 spent on research for every Alzheimer sufferer,” Prof Lawlor said.

“Unless disease modifying treatments that delay the onset of the disease or its rate of progression can be developed, by 2050 one in 85 people will have Alzheimer’s disease. More than 40% of cases will require a high-level of care, and the burden of caregivers will also have a huge impact on the healthcare system.”

Prof Lawlor said there was a strategy for overcoming Alzheimer’s disease:
• Earlier detection and treatment
• Increased awareness
• Research and innovation on cause, care and cure
• Better quality of care for patients and carers.

The conference entitled “Biotechnology in Ireland and the fight against Alzheimer’s”, examined the emerging biotechnology industry in Ireland a nd the role that biological therapies could potentially play in future years in halting or modifying Alzheimer’s disease.

With the current cost of Alzheimer’s care in Ireland at €400 million per annum and 50,000 people in Ireland looking after someone with at least one of the six specified symptoms of dementia, the social and economic implications of this disease for Ireland are significant, according to Prof Eamon O’ Shea, director of the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology (ICSG) at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

“Research shows that more than 25% of carers are themselves elderly. 70% of carers experience financial strain and two thirds find the job of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s completely overwhelming at times,” Prof O’Shea said.

“It is time to recognise dementia as a major public health issue and make it a national health priority.”

Emmet Browne, general manager of Wyeth Ireland said: “If we can make even modest advances in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, or delaying its progression, we could have a huge global public health impact.”

Mr Browne said the Wyeth Ireland conference, held last week in Dublin, aimed to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s which is drastically needed in terms of battling this disease and improving the lives of sufferers.

Alzheimer’s disease statistics
• A person develop dementia every three minutes
• AD currently affects more than 24 million people world wide
• Expected to reach 80 million by 2040
• Accounts for >60% of all dementias
• Prevalence is 1% between the ages of 60-64 but increases to close to 50% in people aged 85 and over
• Through course of the disease patients will require full time care
• Direct and indirect costs in the US are estimated in excess of $100 billion/year
• Current Alzheimer’s treatments are relatively ineffective and do not address disease process.

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