Richard Grellman AM is Chairman of IPH Limited, FBR Limited and Spokesman for The Dementia Momentum at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA).
We are all aware that with a rapidly expanding ageing population, dementia is set to bring an enormous challenge to health, aged care and social policies.
Dementia is estimated to cost Australia more than $15 billion in 2019, and is predicted to increase to more than $18.7 billion by 2025 and close to $40 billion by the middle of the century. Globally, we are looking at an estimated cost of around $820 billion.
In both economic and social terms, the future of dementia has the potential to be devastating to all Australians.
When I first became Spokesman of The Dementia Momentum initiative led by the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at UNSW Sydney in 2015, there were reportedly 342,000 Australians with dementia. In just a few years, this statistic has increased by 100,000 to over 440,000 people with dementia.
Dementia is now the single greatest cause of disability in older Australians, and its impact continues to worsen.
Despite this, dementia research receives only about 13 per cent of the amount of money for cancer research, an imbalance that must be righted.
The scale of this problem is compounded by the fact that the pursuit of effective drug treatments has hit a brick wall. Even if the search for early intervention to prevent dementia or slow its development becomes a reality through some dramatic breakthroughs, it will not help the thousands of people like my wife Suellen who already have dementia. Our society appears condemned to live with dementia for several future generations.
21 September is World Alzheimer’s Day.
With one in 10 Australians over the age of 65 now with a diagnosis of dementia and with the average delay between the onset of symptoms and a diagnosis of the disease being approximately 2 years, clearly, we need research across the full spectrum of the disease beyond drug treatments, to include prevention strategies in early and mid-life to reduce modifiable risk factors associated with dementia, more timely diagnosis, better post-diagnostic support and effective end of life care for patients and their families.
The importance of lifestyle intervention trials must not be underestimated. Evidence indicates that Alzheimer’s disease develops over a 20-30 year period, which provides us a significant window of opportunity to expand research around risk and protective factors during early and mid-life. The undeniable truth is that this research needs to be conducted at a larger scale to establish more robust findings.
We also need to address the prejudice still associated with dementia and recognise that our cognitive abilities do not necessarily define us. With dementia set to impact more and more of the population we must establish a collective means to support the dignity of those affected and stamp out discriminatory behaviour, intended or otherwise.
My wife Suellen did not choose to have dementia but we have an opportunity to choose how we, as a nation, respond to people in our lives and our community who are diagnosed with dementia.
It is my great hope that the research under The Dementia Momentum initiative – which is combining and harmonising data from around the world to determine which modifiable risk factors are specific to particular demographics and which are worldwide – will generate enough output to inform and create significant policy change in this country.
To ensure robust research findings, we need more funding sources, particularly additional support from corporate and philanthropic sectors, which can be difficult to attract due to persistent stigma about the disease. My hope is that donors recognise the value of funding research into prevention and end of life care, in addition to drug therapies, if we are to change the future of dementia and benefit all Australians.
On this World Alzheimer’s Day, I urge all Australians to ponder the reality of dementia in this country and support research endeavours that have direct relevance to your health and that of the entire community around you, including your children and your grandchildren.
Richard Grellman AM
To find out more about The Dementia Momentum go to: https://cheba.unsw.edu.au/the-dementia-momentum