Dementia Cost Burns Through 1% of Global GDP, Will Increase

Alzheimer’s and other dementias will cost 1 percent of the gross domestic product globally this year and that treatment tab will grow, making urgent the need for more research toward a cure, an advocacy group said.

Seventy percent of an estimated $604 billion will be paid in North America and Western Europe, the group, London-based Alzheimer’s Disease International, said in a report today. The global price will exceed $1 trillion annually by 2030, with 65.7 million people affected, up from 35.6 million in 2010, according to the report. Alzheimer’s strikes mostly people 65 or older.

While hurting more patients than either cancer or heart disease, dementia attracts less research money, the organization said. Governments worldwide need to “make dementia a health priority” as the generation of baby boomers born after World War II begins to turn 65 next year, the group urged.

“There’s inadequate funding right now, because there is inadequate awareness and inadequate concern,” said Bill Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit group based in Chicago, in a telephone interview. “We are in the early stages of an epidemic, and every day we waste now is a day we don’t have.”

Alzheimer’s Disease International is a federation of national associations, including the Chicago-based group, that press governments to allot more resources to fight dementia. The report’s price tag for dementia reflects medical and social care by doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and community support services. The total also includes family members’ unpaid work, which was assigned a value by the researchers.

World Bank Data

The group said it calculated its cost totals using data from the Geneva-based World Health Organization and the Washington-based World Bank, as well as cost data from countries representing half of the worldwide dementia population and 147 studies on the prevalence of dementia globally.

In the report, which was released to mark World Alzheimer’s Day, the international group urged governments to increase research funding to “a level proportionate to the economic burden of the condition.” The paper cites published U.K. data that show funding would have to rise 15-fold to match the research commitment in heart disease and 30-fold to match cancer funding.

“There’s no question that this is a public-health crisis,” said Laura Carstensen, the director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University near Palo Alto, California. “Unless we find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, we’re facing major, major problems with aging populations.”

‘Ridiculously Low’

Carstensen called the amount of money allocated for Alzheimer’s “ridiculously low,” given the numbers of people affected.

“Alzheimer’s will be at the top of the list of global public-health problems within the next 10 years,” she said in a telephone interview. Carstensen isn’t an author of the Alzheimer’s Disease International report.

In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health, the largest single source of research money in the country, budgeted $1.1 billion for the National Institute on Aging, which leads the agency’s work on Alzheimer’s, according to the NIH website. That compares with more than $5 billion for the National Cancer Institute and $4 billion for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

On specific research grants, the NIH website shows that $400 million to $500 million was budgeted annually for Alzheimer’s from 2007 to 2010. Money from the 2009 economic stimulus legislation pushed spending to $534 million in 2009 and $527 million this year.

Cancer Spending

That compares with $6.13 billion for general cancer research and more than $2.4 billion for specific types of cancer in 2010, the website shows. NIH, based in Bethesda, Maryland, allocated $1.9 billion for heart disease and an additional $2.36 billion for cardiovascular diseases.

“We in the U.S. have been trying for some time now to get our policy makers to pay attention to Alzheimer’s in a way that they would another kind of crisis,” said Harry Johns, the president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Association in the U.S. “There is no other situation where the scale and impact are so great, and so little has been done by our federal policy makers to change the course of the disease.”

In the U.S., the current cost is estimated at $172 billion a year, with 5.3 million sufferers, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

AIDS-Type Campaign

The U.S. and other nations need the same kind of “focused and concerted” effort on dementia as was made in the past 20 years to alleviate AIDS, Johns said in a telephone interview. About $3 billion annually is spent on AIDS, he said.

“That effort has allowed that disease to move from a certain death sentence to a chronic condition,” he said. “In Alzheimer’s, we have no treatment that slows or stops the disease.”

Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S. Almost half of people ages 85 years or up have some form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Pfizer Inc. in New York, Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey and Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis are testing medicines aimed at treating the disease.

The U.S. federal government needs to direct additional funding to basic science to help researchers who are trying to identify biomarkers and other means of early detection, said Thies, a pharmacologist. Research should focus on preventing the disease, as once symptoms are apparent, irreversible brain damage is likely to have occurred already, he said.

Pending Legislation

The Alzheimer’s Association is supporting two pieces of legislation in the U.S. Congress that would allocate $2 billion for research and create a national plan that would outline priorities to deal with the disease. Neither has come up for a vote.

“I would describe what the federal government has done so far as stunningly neglectful,” Johns of the Alzheimer’s Association said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Wechsler in New York at pwechsler@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.