A new case of dementia is diagnosed every 4 seconds, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which held its first Ministerial Conference on Global Action Against Dementia in Geneva this week.
At the conference, Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, a risk communication expert counted out loud:
One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four. Another person was diagnosed with dementia.
The number of people living with dementia is expected to triple, due to population aging, by 2050, according to the WHO. Members of the conference adopted a Call for Action aimed at striking a balance between prevention, risk reduction, care, and cure, and emphasized collaboration across borders and industries.
Worldwide, the number of people living with dementia is estimated at 47.47 million. This number is expected to reach 75.63 million in 2030, and 135.46 million by 2050. Most of the increase, according to the WHO, will be in lower income countries.
There is a tidal wave of dementia coming our way worldwide,
said WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan,
We need to see greater investments in research to develop a cure, but also to improve the quality of life of people living with dementia and the support given to their caregivers.
Dementia is a significant global health burden. In 2010, dementia care cost US $604 billion, or 1% of worldwide gross domestic product. Approximately 70% of this was spent on informal, social, and direct medical care.
At the Global Action Against Dementia conference, members agreed that coordinated efforts are needed to track the disease burden and create policies that address dementia’s impact. Additionally, significantly increased research and development efforts will be necessary if the access to quality, cost-effective care is to increase.
From drug development, prevention, and social support, to caregiving models and enabling and optimizing independent living, innovation – a complete overhaul – is required to support dementia patients and their families.
People with dementia need “human connection, security, and stimulation,” according to an article published in LIFE, CJE SeniorLife’s quarterly magazine. The right balance of connection, security, and stimulation varies from person to person. The development and implementation of innovative, personalized caregiving models that do not overburden families or health systems is a challenge for policy makers globally.
Attendees at the WHO conference promised to work together, sharing what they learn about what works and doesn’t, in order to ensure that dementia patients maintain their “dignity, beliefs, needs, and privacy” at all stages of the disease.
According to an article in The Financial Times, only three new dementia drugs have been brought to market in the last 15 years, pointing to a need for increased research and development into the causes and potential treatments of dementia.
At the WHO conference, the government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland announced that over $US 100 million would be invested in a new, global Dementia Discovery fund. Pharmaceutical giants, including GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and Lilly, have already committed to investing millions of dollars in collaborating in new drug development.
The UK Government Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt said:
Dementia is a global threat and we have taken enormous steps in putting this condition on the international health agenda. But there is still much more we need to do to give people with dementia hope for the future. That’s why I am delighted to say [...] that GSK has committed to develop this Fund to make sure that innovative research turns into new drug development. Between us I am confident we can make significant steps in our fight against dementia.
Innovation is about more than drug development and care models, however. There are numerous research and development projects either already underway or in process, which provide social support and help relieve the disease burden for those living with dementia and their caregivers.
Sometimes innovation happens in coffee shops, walking discussion groups, and message boards. If the future of dementia care involves prolonging home care for as long as possible, these types of support will be needed to help those affected by the emotional and economic burden of dementia. Online resources, such as alzConnected, offer new ways to find support during stressful times, as well as the opportunity to share experiences and help others who may be feeling particularly burdened.
Supporting Independent Living
There are several notable projects looking at the use of robotics and artificial intelligence to assist dementia patients with activities of daily living. At the University of Toronto, for example, researchers are testing a prototype of an intelligent supportive environment that coaches patients through activities like hand washing using a video camera, a monitor and audio cues. This type of intervention is intended to reduce dependence on caregivers.
Caption: A senior prepares tea with the help of a robot at University of Toronto's Intelligent Assistive Technology and Systems Lab.
Dr. Rosalie Wang, from the Intelligent Assistive Technology and Systems Lab at the University of Toronto, discussed her research with nuviun, and anticipates having a marketable product in 5-10 years.
Our preliminary results are promising and caregivers have been very supportive of the idea. But several big development areas are actively being researched by us and other research groups looking at speech recognition and natural speech interaction, the AI algorithms necessary to understand the user's activities and provide the most appropriate prompts to help with specific activities, and being able to reliably sense and interpret user activities.
Researchers are also testing the impact of introducing intelligent, socially interactive robot companions for dementia patients. With the help of these robot assistants, patients are making tea and feeling less anxious.
Caption: Seniors interact with PARO, a seal-like robot.
Preventive Brain Exercises
Dementia sufferers are also finding new ways to keep their minds active through mobile applications. The Memory Box Network, a charity based in Scotland, launched an application it calls “Our Big Box” that allows family members to upload family photographs into a virtual memory box to help dementia patients to remember past events. These reminiscing sessions are intended to promote feelings of social well-being and cognitive engagement.
Other applications, such as MusicFirst by Coro Health, the GE MIND app, and Lumosity, stimulate the senses, help patients and caregivers relax, and develop memory, attention, and problem solving skills.