Opinion: Time is running out to tackle dementia, one of the greatest public health threats of our time 

Paola Barbarino, CEO, Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI)

In this guest, post Paola Barbarino, CEO of Alzheimer’s Disease International shares her views following news that the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Dementia Plan fell short of its target, as we reported here.

Three-quarters of World Health Organization (WHO) Member States have failed on their 2017 promise to prioritise dementia and develop a National Dementia Plan by 2025.  

At the World Health Assembly in Geneva, we had to make the call to request a four-year extension on the Global Action Plan on the Public Health Response to Dementia this week. 

At Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), we’ve been tracking the progress of governments developing National Dementia Plans around the world since 2017. And quite frankly, not enough has been done.  

We’ll need over 100 National Dementia Plans to be created in the next two years to meet the WHO targets. A feat that is no longer possible.  

To say we are disappointed is an understatement.  

Paola Barbarino, CEO of Alzheimer’s Disease International

After years of working in this field, it feels that some countries either don’t value their senior citizens enough to invest in their well-being or are too scared of the costs of dementia care to put in place any plans. 

People living with dementia and their carers deserve the urgent action they were promised back in 2017. Yet, the number of NDPs implemented by WHO member states has remained unchanged since 2022.  Unfortunately, even some G7 countries, such as France and England, two nations that formerly led the way with their development of NDPs have this year, regressed.  

Dementia is the seventh leading cause of death in the world and is increasingly, the leading cause of death in some countries. As the population ages and more people are diagnosed, the condition will only become harder to ignore.  

Around 75 per cent of those living with dementia are undiagnosed, and 85 per cent of those living with dementia are not getting the care they need, meaning accessibility is already a major issue that needs to be addressed. 

An ageing population – Dementia is Australia’s second leading cause of death.

Currently, Dementia Australia estimates that there are more than 400,000 Australians living with dementia. Without revolutionary new medical developments, this figure is alarmingly, estimated to double to 800,000 by 2058.   

New estimates show that one in twelve Australians over the age of 65 are living with the condition, with this being the second leading cause of death for the nation in 2020.  

However, the impact of this disease is not characterised simply by the death it causes, but rather by the significant psychological, emotional, and physical burdens that living with it places on the individual and their loved ones.  

There is a clear need to expedite responses to dementia as the population ages. Australia’s next national dementia plan is still in its development phase and is due to be released next year. 

We must not let perfect be the enemy of good. All governments must start somewhere. In many countries initiating awareness-raising campaigns is a start. In other more developed countries like Australia, progressing to areas such as flexible working to enable carers to stay at work for longer, or introducing a risk reduction awareness campaign, is the next point of call, a building block and both make good economic sense. 

In the absence of a ‘cure’, comprehensive dementia care and support is a must. 

Governments must prioritise improving employment law. Carers must be supported to remain in work through innovative and flexible approaches, and as more people are diagnosed at an earlier age, people living with dementia should also be able to retain employment for as long as possible, in their existing jobs, not roles specifically created for them.    

We can reappraise existing labour laws and take inspiration from innovations that exist already in approaches to child care. This way both employees and employers benefit, retaining experience, training, knowledge, and personal contribution.  

In saying this, long-term care for dementia must be better funded and resourced.

Globally, we’re seeing a shortage of paid and professional carers which is threatening the sustainability of existing long-term care mechanisms. 

The number of people living with dementia is increasing every day. The four-year extension must be used wisely by governments to shore up their response to dementia before it’s too late.  

While some countries are on track, for most, there’s urgent work that needs to be done. 

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