Mental health care needs a cure, not a band-aid

By Kim Nursall

Most people are aware of the harrowing nature of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Few individuals, however, recognize the potential crisis that the diseases’ effects, coupled with Canada’s aging population, could generate. Dementia is the most significant cause of disability among Canadians 65 and older and cost Canadian society over $15 billion in 2010 alone.

Dementia refers to disorders characterized by the deterioration of cognitive abilities as the brain becomes damaged through degenerative neurological processes. Common symptoms include loss of memory, judgment and reasoning which leads to changes in mood and behaviour. Consequently, a person’s ability to communicate or function at work, in relationships or in daily activities may be hindered. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive, degenerative and fatal brain disease that attacks cell to cell connections in the brain and causes brain cells to eventually die.

Without intervention, the Alzheimer Society of Canada predicts that by 2038, 1.1 million Canadians will have dementia, approximately 2.8 per cent of all Canadians and nine per cent of Canadians over 60. In addition, the demand for long-term care required by dementia patients will increase tenfold during this period and by 2038 dementia will cost Canada $153 billion per year.

Over the next 30 years, the total economic price tag of dementia will be $872 billion in direct health care costs, caregiver opportunity costs (foregone wages) and indirect costs associated with the provision of informal care. Dementia will place a tremendous strain on Canada’s capacity to provide health-care services, potentially overburdening the country’s health-care system.

A comprehensive strategy for addressing this issue must include investment in dementia research. Most of what we know about the neurological processes behind dementia and Alzheimer’s has been learned as a result of recent research, but a cure and viable treatment options are still elusive. According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the potential benefits from increased investment in research will be immense even without an outright cure. It is realistic to predict that acceleration of research will lead within 10 years to better prevention strategies, earlier diagnosis and treatments that slow the progression of the disease. Collectively, the outcome is that onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in any individual would be delayed on average by two years if funding triples over the next decade. The CIHR predicts that if this funding were available today, it would reduce the cumulative costs to Canada between 2008 and 2038 by $219 billion.

If the Alzheimer Society of Canada and the CIHR are correct, the Government of Canada will significantly decrease costs in the long run and alleviate a substantial and growing pressure on our health care system if it acts on this problem immediately. Although dementia and Alzheimer’s generally only directly affect seniors, both place a long-term mounting burden on those who care for them. This includes a severe strain and financial toll on family and caregivers, the health care system, the business community and society in general. Unless medical breakthroughs are made in terms of prevention and care of dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, this problem will persist. Additionally, since age is a primary and unalterable risk factor for dementia, the growth of the dementia crisis in Canada will gather momentum as the population ages. The first of the baby boomers will become seniors in 2011, at which time dementia will become progressively more burdensome on Canadian society. Eventually, this may overtax the health care system and seriously handicap a large segment of the Canadian population.

The Canadian government’s Department of Industry identifies finding solutions for medical conditions facing Canada’s aging population as a main concern for 2010-2011. However, despite this prioritizing, the CIHR (which acts on behalf of the Department) has only invested $16 million in dementia research this year and $98 million cumulatively since 2000. Given that dementia has cost Canada $120 billion over the same period, more still needs to be done. If you want to avoid the impending epidemic, write your MP and insist that more funds need to be allocated toward dementia research.

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