Policy, general medicine

Growing Alzheimer’s epidemic could cripple healthcare

11 June 2007

Washington D.C., USA. The rapidly increasing number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease could cripple healthcare services in the next few decades. This follows the recent warning that another modern epidemic, diabetes, could do the same (see Call for international action on biggest epidemic in human history — diabetes).

The latest estimate is that 26.6 million people were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease worldwide in 2006, and it will rise to 100m by 2050 — 1 in 85 of the total population. More than 40% of those cases will be in late-stage Alzheimer’s, requiring a high level of attention equivalent to nursing home care.

The report was presented at The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Prevention of Dementia, which is being held in Washington, USA, this week. The research was led by Dr Ron Brookmeyer, Professor of Biostatistics and Chair of the Master of Public Health Program at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore.

The goal of the study was to forecast the global burden of Alzheimer’s disease and evaluate the potential impact of being able to delay the onset of the disease on the world population.

“The number of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease is growing at an alarming rate, and the increasing financial and personal costs will have a devastating effect on the world’s economies, healthcare systems and families,” said Dr William Thies, vice president of Medical and Scientific Relations with the Alzheimer's Association.

“We must make the fight against Alzheimer’s a national priority before it’s too late. The absence of effective disease-modifying drugs, coupled with an aging population, makes Alzheimer’s the healthcare crisis of the 21st century."

“However, there is hope. There are several drugs in Phase III clinical trials for Alzheimer’s that show great promise to slow or stop the progression of the disease. This, combined with advancements in diagnostic tools, has the potential to change the landscape of Alzheimer’s, but we need more funding for research to make this happen,” Thies said.

“The astronomical costs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia have a tremendous impact on individuals living with the disease, their loved ones and society as a whole,” said Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We must increase funding for research on treatment, prevention and early detection. And until we defeat this disease, we must provide better care for people with dementia and their families. The advancements we make in treatment and prevention now will save millions of dollars and lives in the near future,” he said.

Effect of interventions

The researchers found a significant effects from what may seem like small outcomes:

  • Delaying Alzheimer’s disease onset by one year would reduce the number of Alzheimer's cases in 2050 by 12 million.
  • Delaying both Alzheimer’s disease onset and disease progression by two years would reduce burden by more than 18 million cases, with most of that decrease — 16 million cases — among late-stage cases that require the most intensive care.

Doubling time

A separate study has found that the doubling time for the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease was 5.5 years, and this was the same throughout the world and for both men and women. This study, conducted by Dr Kathryn Ziegler-Graham, visiting assistant professor in Statistics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and colleagues, looked at research reporting age-specific incidence rates for Alzheimer’s disease.

Conference reports

Brookmeyer, R. Forecasting the global prevalence and burden of Alzheimer’s disease.

Ziegler-Graham, K. Worldwide variation in the doubling time of Alzheimer’s disease incidence rates.

More information

The Alzheimer’s Association: www.alz.org.

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