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Dementia is affecting more people, and governments need to do more about it: WHO

A dementia patient wearing a purple mask takes part in a gathering on 'World Alzheimer's Day' in Bangalore, India, 21 September 2020. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/JAGADEESH NV)

Over 55 million people in the world live with dementia, but only a quarter of all countries have national guidance and support mechanisms in place, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report released today warns.

Half of the countries without national plans are in the WHO’s Europe Region, where many plans that were implemented have expired and need to be renewed.

Dementia can develop for a variety of reasons, including through physical injury, stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease. It can impact cognitive and physical functions and make basic, daily tasks difficult.

At present, dementia afflicts 8.1 per cent of all women and 5.4 per cent of all men in the world over the age of 65. Ten per cent of dementia cases are early onset.

The WHO’s new report stresses that more countries need to have better support and anti-discrimination policies in place for those living with dementia and those caring for them – especially as dementia becomes more widespread.

Around 78 million people will be living with the condition by 2030, and 139 million by 2050, the WHO projects.

“What we need to have is a sense of preparedness in countries to deal with that increasing burden,” Dr Tarun Dua, unit head at the WHO’s department of mental health and substance use told journalists on Thursday. She said that 26 per cent of countries with national dementia plans are not adequately prepared. “What we need is accelerated action.”

It is crucial to prepare health and social systems better, because “we're far from being able to cure dementia,” said Dr Katrin Seeher, a technical officer at the same department.

Research efforts are ongoing, and some disease modifying drugs have shown “partial success”. But a difficulty is finding effective treatments for dementia’s diverse causes, she explained.

“To have a better chance of success, dementia research efforts need to have a clear direction and be better coordinated,” Dua said. “This is why WHO is developing the Dementia Research Blueprint, a global coordination mechanism to provide structure to research efforts and stimulate new initiatives.”

A cure may not yet exist, but prevention is possible. “[Dementia] is absolutely not a normal or inevitable part of biological ageing,” said Seeher.

Eating healthy and avoiding substance abuse are steps in the right direction, said Dua. So is managing hypertension, diabetes, depression, and social isolation.

“What is good for your heart is also good for your brain,” she said.