Inside Story

Dementia: A global disaster in waiting?

As someone is diagnosed with the syndrome every four seconds, we ask if there is hope for a cure.

Last updated: 12 Dec 2013 14:24
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It has been described as a global disaster waiting to happen, someone is diagnosed with dementia every four seconds, and the numbers are set to triple by 2050.

The degenerative condition attacks the brain, chipping away at physical and mental well-being, compromising the independence of those affected, and their dignity and to date, there is no cure.

And while the number of people affected by this illness is forecast to soar, funding for research lags way behind that of cancer and AIDS.

The world … is waking up to [dementia] and I will really position the way we think about dementia currently as the way we thought about cancer maybe 30 years ago .… Cancer at that time wasn't a word you could actually use … it was rather hidden for view, but then followed a significant investment in research … and  I see the research in dementia on that trajectory.

Eric Karran, director of research Alzheimer's Research UK

The alarm bells are ringing, and a summit has been held in the UK by the G8 nations to try to find a way to deal with the challenges ahead.

 "In generations past, the world came together to take on the great killers. We stood against malaria, against cancer, against HIV and AIDS, and we should be just as resolute today, " British Prime Minister David Cameron said.

Dementia is a global health problem, affecting 44 million people worldwide, and that number is expected to rise to 135 million in the coming decades.

The cost to the world is estimated at more than $600bn every year, a figure that is expected to increase dramatically, but still, investment in research remains low. In the UK, for example, cancer research gets seven times more funding.

"Dementia can occur at any stage in life but now that life spans are growing, the problem's going global, putting a huge strain on developing countries with less advanced medical care," Al Jazeera's Neave Barker reported.

The developing world is facing a dramatic rise in sufferers. A quarter of the world's Alzheimer's patients live in China and the number of people with the disease is predicted to double every 20 years.

"When we ask why is Alzheimer's disease such a big problem, I think because there's no other disease area, where the numbers of patients are growing so fast. And the burden to the economy is so heavy."  Wang Jun from the Alzheimer's Disease Association told Al Jazeera. 

The lack of funds for research has meant there has been little progress and no new treatment in 10 years.

But advances in brain scanning techniques are raising hopes of a breakthrough. Early detection is crucial, as damage to brain cells can occur 10 to 15 years before symptoms are diagnosed.

Now proteins known as amyloids, that build in the brain as Alzheimer's takes hold, can be identified. Researchers are studying whether these brain scans could lead to ways to curb the onset of the disease.

So, is there hope for a cure or effective treatment? Will a lack of funding hamper research programmes? And how will the world pay for the increasing burden on healthcare as the number of sufferers increases?

To discuss this, Inside Story with presenter Sue Turton, is joined by guests: Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer's Research UK; Rupert Stroud, a singer-songwriter, who does charity work for dementia, after seeing how his grandmother suffered from the condition; and Ruoling Chen, a research leader in global health at the School of Medicine at King's College, London.

"When my grandmother was diagnosed in 2003 ... I was little bit naive about the disease. I didn't really understand it; I guess  I just kind of did assume it was something which happens when you get old .... But you know 10 years on now with what I have learnt ...  I want ... in the memory of my grandmother ... to encourage the younger generations to support the charity, because yes we are the generations who [will]e benefit from this planning and research ... my key message is to try to encourage my fans ... to [give to] the charity."

-Rupert Stroud, a singer-songwriter, who does charity work for dementia


Al Jazeera
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