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The challenge of dementia

By Will Parry
A new study by the World Health Organization (WHO) lends fresh urgency to the work of the recently-launched Caring Across Generations coalition.

WHO is the United Nations agency charged with monitoring global health trends. Its new 113-page report, Dementia: A Public Health Priority, declares that throughout the world an estimated 35.6 million people live with dementia today. By 2050, that number is expected to more than triple.
By then, two billion aging people will be at risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“The scope of the looming medical-care disaster is beyond comparison with anything that has been faced during the entire history of humanity,” said Dr. Barry Greenberg, director of strategy for the Toronto Dementia Research Alliance.

Alzheimer’s experts are blunt about the lack of effective treatments for the disease.

“No one understands how it happens. Every day, the minds of millions of high-functioning people slowly slip into another reality, one in which life events, loved one’s faces, children’s names – all the memories that constitute a person’s identity – have disappeared,” Laura Gottesdiener writes in the AfterNet news service.

The disease often lies dormant for decades in a patient’s cerebral spinal fluid before it begins to affect cognitive functioning. Treatments? Dr. Evelyn C. Granieri is director of geriatrics at New York Prsesbyterian Hospital. “There really is nothing,” she says. “You don’t get better, ever.”

This despite the expenditure over decades of tens of billions of research dollars.

The WHO report recommends the development of programs focused on improving early diagnosis, raising public awareness and reducing the stigma associated with the disease, and providing both better care for those with dementia and more support for caregivers.

That’s where Caring Across Generations has a critical role. Every one of the stricken millions is going to need a trained, empathetic caregiver. Caring Across Generations is raising public consciousness about this need, now and in the years ahead.

Caregiving, an exhausting occupation under the best of circumstances, is especially demanding when the one cared for has dementia. As the population ages, millions of people, often family or friends, will be stepping into caregiver roles. They will need and deserve decent wages and conditions, opportunities for respite, and the training and support they need, both for the one cared for, and for their own continued health.

In February, the National Institute of Health approved new funding for Alzheimer’s research. “We can’t wait to act,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

The clock is ticking not just for the individual patient, but for the entire health care system. Concerned scientists are calling for the suspension of the private, profit-based research model in favor of a global, public-private program.

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