Alberta joins G8 counterparts in tackling dementia

Ageing population means greater strain on the health system

Officials are warning that the rising tide of dementia is set to be one of the most serious health crises the world will face in coming decades. According to studies conducted by the World Health Organization and Alzheimer’s Disease International the number of people suffering from dementia is expected to double within the next 20 years. The Alzheimer Society of Canada estimates Alberta which currently has approximately 40000 residents diagnosed with dementia will have 100000 by 2038.

“The demands on the health-care system in this province and across the country and probably around the world are going to be incredible because again that rising tide is coming up” says Bill Gaudette executive director of Alberta’s Alzheimer Society.

A 2008 study by the Alzheimer Society of Canada states that caring for dementia sufferers cost the Alberta government $650 million in direct health-care costs in that year.

“The demand for long-term care (LTC) beds alone is expected to increase by over 11 times the current demand…. By 2038 the total number of hours of informal care is expected to increase 3.7 times the current estimate [and] over the next 30 years dementia is expected to burden Alberta society with over $75.6 billion in total direct health costs unpaid caregiver costs and indirect costs” the report added.

Worldwide the forecast is similar. A 2010 Standard & Poor’s study pegged the annual social-economic cost of dementia at $604 billion — one per cent of global GDP. The increase is attributed entirely to the world’s aging population and increasing life expectancies.

In response to the looming plight health ministers from the G8 countries met in the U.K. from December 11 to 13 to develop a global dementia strategy. Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne was among the officials who participated in the summit.

“This is the first time that G8 countries have brought health ministers together to tackle a major health issue around the world” Horne said during a London press conference.

“The G8 countries have made a commitment that by 2025 we will have either identified a cure for dementia or we will have an effective therapy to modify the disease — more than likely something focused on delaying the onset of the disease until much later in life; 85 years of age 90 years of age in that range.

“And so the G8 countries are going to be focusing a lot on increasing funding for research and collaborating on research internationally.”

Horne said Canada lags behind other G8 countries in that it does not yet have a national strategy to address dementia but he wants to make forming one a priority. He also said Alberta’s health-care system will face challenges as the issue worsens.

“[The challenge] is going to be two things” Horne said. “Finding enough people to deliver the informal care and making sure that we don’t burn them out in the process…. It becomes quite onerous for someone to take on the care of a parent and try to keep that person at home in the community. I think that’s going to continue to be a challenge for Alberta so we’re going to have to continue to find ways to better support caregivers through things like respite programs through training programs and by providing support in the community for people who are taking on huge tasks. The other thing I think that will be important for us is being more of a player internationally in research. As far as Canada goes we probably have the most funding for medical research of any province.”

Gaudette agrees that long-term care already is and will continue to be the main concern.

“The silver bullet of hope might be that we can find [a cure] doing research but short of that kind of miracle we’re going to have to care for these people” he says. “Just helping people who are the informal caregivers — if we can support them in their efforts in a variety of means… then we postpone the demands on the formal health-care system. So if I’m able to take care of a loved-one at home… then I’m freeing up a bed in that long-term care system.

“That’s hopefully what was driving the health ministers to get together in London because I think there was an increasing awareness not only in this province [and] country but around the world that there is a crisis that’s looming and we need to start gearing up for it.”