The world is on the brink of an Alzheimer’s epidemic in which the number of sufferers could quadruple over the next 40 years.
The 26 million people worldwide thought to be living with the illness could swell to more than 106 million by 2050, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, predict.
And, according to the Alzheimer’s Society, about 1.7 million people in the UK will be suffering with the disease by that date.
There are 700,000 people with dementia in Britain, of whom 400,000 are Alzheimer’s sufferers. The public health time bomb is being blamed on the world’s ageing population as advances in medicine mean people are living longer.
Professor Ron Brookmeyer, the researcher who revealed the predicted rise yesterday at the International Conference on the Prevention of Dementia being, held in Washington DC, said: “We face a looming global epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease as the world’s population ages.
“By 2050, one in 85 people worldwide will have Alzheimer’s disease. However, if we can make even modest advances in preventing Alzheimer’s disease or delay its progression, we could have a huge global public health impact.”
He warned that the biggest rise in cases would occur in Asia, where 48 per cent of sufferers live. There, prevalence will grow from 12.65 million in 2006 to 62.85 million in 2050, accounting for 59 per cent of all cases, the study said.
In Britain, the Alzheimer’s Society is calling for a nationwide strategy to deal with the issue, which could have disastrous effects on an already struggling NHS. Dementia costs the UK £17bn a year, of which £11bn is due to Alzheimer’s. An increase by one million could see that figure more than double.
One in five people over the age of 80 suffer from Alzheimer’s, with five per cent of those over 65 having some form of the disease. News of the predicted health crisis came as other experts unveiled a new test that can predict a person’s risk of dementia in the next six years. It combines medical history, cognitive function and a physical examination and is 87 per cent accurate, according to the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Centre in California.
The test involves scoring people on a range of risk factors such as being 70 or older, slow ability on everyday tasks such as buttoning a shirt, a history of coronary bypass surgery and not drinking alcohol.
Neil Hunt, the chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, said tools to predict dementia and encourage healthy lifestyles were important to combat the disease. But he added: “There is a risk with any tool which predicts the likelihood of developing dementia of clinicians becoming reliant on diagnosis by numbers.
“Dementia is incurable and discovering you have a high chance of developing the condition may frighten people rather than empowering them into action to reduce their risks.”
The Maryland research painted a “a stark picture of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on a global scale”, Mr Hunt said. “A national dementia strategy must consider the global scale of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. We must make it a national health priority.” There is no cure for Alzheimer’s although there is hope that the field of stem cell research may unlock the secrets of the disease and possibly lead to a cure. Drug treatments have also been developed that can slow progression of symptoms in some people.
Disease that destroys lives
* Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia in the UK, affecting about 400,000 people
* About 5 per cent of people aged over 65 have some form of Alzheimer’s
* Symptoms include loss of memory, confusion and problems with speech and understanding
* The Government spends £3.7m annually on research. The annual cost of caring for people with the disease is £11bn, a cost shared by the Government and the families of those affected Independent News and Media Limited