- Alzheimer’s is a looming global pandemic, with the number of sufferers set to triple by 2050 to 152 million.
- Technology might help. With the development of inexpensive biomarkers, or “preventative and personalized risk indications”, a more effective means to diagnose and treat the disease may emerge.
- But it will be a multitude of combined treatments and consideration of the wider burden of care that will be part of the solution.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s affects more than 47 million people worldwide, with a vast toll on individuals, caregivers and society. In 2018, the disease cost the world $1.25 trillion and as populations age, Alzheimer’s is a health and societal timebomb. Without major progress, the number of people affected will triple by 2050 to 152 million people.
In the absence of a cure, research is heavily invested into developing one. $2.8 billion is spent a year in the US on this goal alone. But the issues around Alzheimer’s don’t stop at cure or diagnosis. Critical factors include prevention, caregiving and financing: at the funding level and the cost to the individual and accessibility of drugs.
As more people live longer, with increasing health and social care needs, and as new drugs and technologies are developed, surging healthcare demands and expectations will outstrip supply. There is a global demand-capacity mismatch for age-related non-communicable diseases.
While most healthcare systems focus on reactive care in hospitals, too little attention is given to the wider burden of care – the impact that it has on, for example, the future of work – when more people will have to devote time to elderly as well as young dependents, and ensuring universal, affordable access to drugs once they should become available will be challenging.
Much energy has been focused on early detection, but there is a large gap between symptoms and visible onset: the disease tends to start decades earlier than it manifests. So while investment goes into clinical trials, the challenge is in fact broader, requiring vast research into cognitive behaviours, immunology and genetics.
To date, possible preventative measures have limitations. World Health Organization guidelines on targeting risk factors – such as physical exercise, cognitive therapy and hypertension – tend to point to aspects of health that are too late to do anything about. So, while it is relevant for future generations, the current ageing population is still facing an untreatable, non-preventable pandemic. Research has also cited childhood education as a causal factor, but implementation of any strategy to address this is extremely limited.
Trust in tech?
Technology might help. With the development of inexpensive biomarkers (preventative and personalized risk indications) a more effective means to diagnose and treat the disease may emerge. But it will probably be a multitude of combined treatments that will be part of the solution.
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Collective fight against the world’s most expensive chronic condition
The launch of a new partnership between the World Economic Forum and the Global CEO Initiative (CEOi) at the Annual Meeting in Davos marked a turning point. The partnership is a coalition of public and private stakeholders – including pharmaceutical manufacturers, biotech companies, governments, international organizations, foundations and research agencies – who will collectively advance the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
It will consider mechanisms to accelerate biomarker research; attract public, private and philanthropic capital; increase global capacity and performance of clinical trials; and improve the readiness of healthcare systems to detect, diagnose and treat the disease.
As scientists continue efforts to find a cure, the challenge of Alzheimer’s and dementia requires broader action to mitigate a looming health crisis that is already the most expensive chronic condition of the world’s growing ageing population.