Dementia Crisis Looms, study finds

Preventive, coping measures urged by Alzheimer Society

Andrew Duffy, Canwest News Service

Published: Monday, January 04, 2010

It is feared Canada may have 1.1 million dementia sufferers by 2038.

OTTAWA – A new study by the Alzheimer Society of Canada says the country urgently needs a strategy to minimize the impact of the Baby Boomers’ march toward dementia.

The study, Rising Tide: The Impact of Dementia on Canadian Society, suggests that 1.1 million Canadians will have Alzheimer’s disease, or a related dementia, by 2038.

If not mitigated, dementia’s prevalence will create a tenfold increase in the demand for long-term care beds and cost the Canadian economy a staggering $97-billion annually, the study found.

It also suggests the amount of time Canadians spend caring for parents and spouses with dementia will triple in the next three decades, to 756 million hours a year.

“If we do nothing, dementia will have a crippling effect on Canadian families, our health-care system and economy,” said Richard Nakoneczny, president of the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

About 500,000 Canadians are now living with dementia, a progressive disease that first attacks memory and then harms other brain functions. The disease eventually robs its victims of their personality and independence.

It is the leading cause of disability among seniors and already is responsible for about $8-billion annually in direct health-care costs.

The study is based on the work of RiskAnalytica, a Toronto consulting firm that specializes in risk management and analysis. It is part of a two-year research project sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada, Pfizer Canada and Rx&D.

The Alzheimer Society hopes the project will offer a foundation for a national plan on dementia.

The report, being released today, says there are currently no cross-Canada standards for the care of dementia patients. What’s more, it says, doctors and nurses receive limited training in the prevention, identification and diagnosis of the disease.

Some provinces, including Ontario, have a strategic plan in place to manage the approaching wave, but politicians continue to underestimate the problem, an Alzheimer Society of Canada spokesman said.

“People don’t realize the challenge they’re facing,” said David Harvey, a society executive. “Governments are looking to solve health-system issues, but they haven’t identified dementia as the underlying cause of so many of them.”

Health-care officials are struggling to deal with overcrowded hospitals. But some of that overcrowding, Mr. Harvey contends, results from the system’s inability to deliver health-care to dementia patients at home.

Other countries have already taken action to mitigate the impact of dementia.

The United Kingdom, France, Norway and the Netherlands have all developed national plans that focus on early diagnosis, specialized home care, research and prevention.

The study suggests that promoting an increase in physical activity among people over 65 would significantly reduce the number of people diagnosed with dementia. Exercise has been shown to promote brain health.

It also suggests assigning a case manager to co-ordinate the home-based care of dementia patients would significantly reduce the strain on individual caregivers and lessen the demand for long-term care beds.

Age is the primary risk factor for dementia. The risk of developing the disease doubles every five years after 65.

With the first of Canada’s 10 million Baby Boomers about to turn 65, an enormous number of people will be at increased risk in the coming decades. It means that, if unchecked, about 257,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with dementia every year by 2038, or about one every two minutes, the study said.

Caring for them will be an enormous challenge.

Based on growth trends, Canada is expected to have about 690,000 long-term care beds by 2038. But that still leaves a projected shortfall of 157,000 beds, according to the study.

Part of that shortfall will be alleviated by the fact that more people will be living at home with the disease. But that will place an increased burden on both family caregivers and home-care agencies.

Mr. Harvey said caregivers need education and support, including the ability to drop out of the Canada Pension Plan for several years without a financial penalty.

The study recommends a national strategy to include new investment in research; education and support for family caregivers; more focus on prevention; and incentives to increase the number of geriatricians, neurologists, psychiatrists and advanced-practice nurses.

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