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Need for dementia research will only keep growing

Along with financial insecurity due to inadequate pensions, Canadians have health issues to worry about as society ages and we live longer.

One of the most alarming fears is dementia: the physical side of aging, whether aches and pains or more serious ailments, is one thing, but the prospect of losing a grip on one’s own reality is something else entirely.

In that light, investments such as the one announced last week for the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging will become more prevalent.

The broad term dementia refers to a number of brain disorders, some treatable others still irreversible. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common among aging men and women; symptoms such as withdrawal, isolation and loneliness along with confusion are quite common in later stages.

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, more than 565,00 Canadians are currently living with dementia, with that number expected to hit 937,000 before the middle of the next decade.

One in 11 Canadians over the age of 65 have some form of dementia, and the numbers are only rising as the country’s population continues to age. Others remain undiagnosed, possibly due to stigma or other barriers.

Dementia also has an impact beyond the lives of those afflicted, particularly for partners and family members who are the first line of caregiving – those directly and indirectly affected amount to some 1.1 million Canadians. In monetary costs alone, the society puts the annual tab for caring for those with dementia at $10.4 billion.

Dementia is the most common type of neurodegenerative disorder, used to describe a range of symptoms associated with a decline in mental function severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. It’s caused by a variety of diseases and injuries that affect the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, followed by vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and frontotemporal dementia; individuals can also have a combination of different types of dementia.

Mental functions that may be impaired include memory, communication and language, ability to focus and pay attention, reasoning and judgment, and visual perception. Emotional control, social behaviour and motivation may also deteriorate. As the condition progresses, the need for assistance increases, and eventually, almost constant supervision is required.

While dementia mainly affects older people, it’s not considered a normal part of healthy aging.

Dementia rates are very low among those younger than 65 but increase dramatically with age. The prevalence of dementia more than doubles every 5 years among seniors (from less than one per cent in those age 65 to 69 to about 25 per cent in those age 85 and older). Dementia is as prevalent among those 80 and older as heart failure (a chronic condition that develops after the heart becomes damaged or weakened), and is more prevalent than stroke.

The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates 7.1 per cent of all people 65 and older  are living with dementia, two-thirds of them women.

Last week’s funding announcement in Waterloo comes on the heels of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, with the Alzheimer’s Society continued a campaign to erase the stigma attached to the disease. The organization notes that research indicates one in four Canadians would feel ashamed or embarrassed if they had dementia. For three years now, it’s had people dealing with the affliction put the message in their own words. The “I live with dementia. Let me help you understand” campaign gives a voice to Canadians with dementia who are frustrated by the constant assumptions and misinformation associated with the disease.

Given the numbers, we’re going to have do much more than what we’re doing even today.

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