The High Costs of Dementia Are Set to Soar Worldwide

Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's disease

Add one more woe that's creating a rising financial burden for both individuals and countries: dementia. Its total worldwide costs for 2010 are estimated to be $604 billion, or around 1% of the world's GDP. And with the number of people afflicted by dementia expected to more than triple by 2050, the costs will soar, according to the World Alzheimer Report 2010 from Alzheimer's Disease International.

"This is a wake-up call that Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are the single most significant health and social crisis of the 21st century," says Dr. Daisy Acosta, chairman of the ADI. "World governments are woefully unprepared for the social and economic disruptions this disease will cause."

Dementia mostly affects older people and is a syndrome that can be caused by a number of progressive disorders that affect memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer's, which is the most common type of dementia, is incurable and fatal.

Who's Spending What on Alzheimer's

The report estimates that 35.6 million people worldwide are now living with dementia, which will increase to 65.7 million by 2030 and 115.4 million by 2050. Costs are estimated to jump by 85% by 2030, to over $1.1 trillion. Nearly two-thirds of dementia sufferers live in low- and middle-income countries, where the sharpest increases in numbers are set to occur.

In the U.S., 5.3 million people have Alzheimer's disease. It's the seventh-leading cause of death and costs as much as $172 billion annually, according to the recent report by the Alzheimer's Association. This amounts to about 28% of the world's cost (assuming similar calculations) despite the U.S. having only 15% of the patients. Clearly, the economic burden of dementia in the U.S. is already high, and the number of those afflicted is growing as the nation's population ages.

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In general, about 70% of the costs occur in Western Europe and North America, with high-income countries spending 1.24% of GDP on dementia. Low-income countries accounted for just under 1% of total worldwide costs but 14% of the prevalence and spending of $868 per person. Middle-income countries accounted for 10% of the costs but 40% of the prevalence and spending of $3,109 to $6,827 per person. High-income countries accounted for 89% of the costs but 46% of the prevalence and spending of $32,865 per person.

Setback After Setback

The ADI calls on governments to make dementia a health priority. Perhaps most important, it wants governments, companies and organizations to increase funding for dementia research, including prevention, to a level more proportionate to the economic burden.

But Alzheimer's has proved to be a particularly tough nut to crack. One after another, pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lilly (LLY), Pfizer (PFE) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) have been announcing research setbacks even as they agreed to share research data. Another blow came in May when the National Institutes of Health said none of the methods used in attempts to prevent, delay or reduce the severity of Alzheimer's disease have been proven to work.

With so little achieved so far, and with such disparity compared to other diseases when it comes to research spending given the economic burden, says co-author of the study, Martin Prince, "governments must show greater leadership, working with all stakeholders, to drive solutions to the long-term-care issue."