World failing people with dementia, which is set to rise to 78 million by 2030: WHO

A man visits his wife at a care facility for elderly people with dementia in Wassenaar, Netherlands on April 9, 2020.
A man visits his wife at a care facility for elderly people with dementia in Wassenaar, Netherlands on April 9, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP, REUTERS) - Dementia, which robs people of their "memories, independence and dignity", is on the rise worldwide, but few countries are equipped to fight it, the World Health Organisation has warned.

In a report, the WHO said that dementia, caused by a variety of diseases and injuries that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer's or stroke, affects more than 55 million people in what has become a "global public health concern".

That figure is set to rise to 78 million by 2030 and 139 million by 2050 as the population grows older.

Yet, only a quarter of countries worldwide have a national strategy for supporting people with dementia and their families, the WHO said last Thursday (Sept 2).

Half of these countries are in Europe, with the remainder split among other regions in the world.

"Yet, even in Europe, many plans are expiring or have already expired, indicating a need for renewed commitment from governments," the WHO said.

The organisation's chief, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said "dementia not only robs millions of people of their memories, independence and dignity, but it also robs the rest of us of the people we know and love".

"The world is failing people with dementia, and that hurts all of us," he was quoted as saying in a statement.

Ms Katrin Seeher, from the WHO's mental health and substance-use department, told reporters that more than 60 per cent of people living with dementia were in low- and middle-income countries.

"We especially need to reduce the gap that exists between high-income and low- and middle-income countries, and between urban and rural areas," she said.

Many people - most of whom are women - are reduced to looking after loved ones suffering from dementia without any professional help, in what is called "informal care".

"Care programmes and services must be developed and funded to reduce that burden on informal caregiving and support carers in this important task," said Ms Seeher.

Dementia mostly affects those aged 65 and over, but can also touch people in their 30s and 40s. Ms Seeher noted that so-called young-onset dementia accounts for about 10 per cent of all dementia cases.

There is no treatment, but studies have shown that some 40 per cent of cases could be avoided or delayed by a healthy lifestyle.

Risk factors include depression, low education, social isolation and lack of cognitive stimulation.

Some risk factors can be reduced, by controlling hypertension, diabetes, diet, depression and the use of alcohol and tobacco, the WHO said.

"These are the things that we can do to promote our brain health and decrease the cognitive decline and the risk for dementia. These are things that can be started at a younger age," said WHO expert Tarun Dua.

In its report, the WHO said the global cost of dementia was estimated to be US$1.3 trillion (S$1.74 trillion) in 2019.

"The cost is projected to increase to US$1.7 trillion by 2030, or US$2.8 trillion if corrected for increases in care costs," it added.