The Impact of Alzheimer’s Disease by the (Very Scary) Numbers

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Suffering is always hard to quantify — especially when the pain is caused by as cruel a disease as Alzheimer’s. Most illnesses attack the body; Alzheimer’s destroys the mind — and in the process, annihilates the very self. But there are dimensions of the disease it’s possible to measure, and on Tuesday, Alzheimer’s Disease International released its 2010 report on The Global Economic Impact of Dementia. It makes for disturbing — if illuminating — reading.

The first study of this scope to examine the macroeconomics of all types of dementias, the 2010 report includes some hard-to-ignore data. About 35.6 million people worldwide live with some type of dementia — about four times the population of Sweden. That caseload will increase to 65.7 million by 2030 and 115.4 by 2050.

Globally, $604 billion is spent per year on dementia care — or 1% of the world’s GDP. An individual country with that kind of wealth would be home to the world’s 18th largest economy, just below Turkey and just above Indonesia. The same $604 billion is also 50% more than the total market value of WalMart and twice that of ExxonMobile. By 2050, if dementia cases multiply as projected, the annual costs will grow commensurately — to a breathtaking $1.9 trillion. (More on The Tau of Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention)

And if you think there’s a silver lining to that very dark cloud — hundreds of billions of dollars worth of health care jobs that at least help sustain and improve other lives — think again. Forty-two percent of the overall figure is not actual costs, but the estimated value of unpaid care — the sometimes full-time work family members and volunteers do to sustain the sick.

No surprise, there are significant country-to-country disparities in both the incidence of dementia and the costs of treating it. About two-thirds of victims worldwide live in low- and middle-income countries, but fully 70% of treatment costs are incurred in just two highly developed regions: North America and Western Europe. That’s partly because so many poor countries offer little or no treatment at all — and you can’t pay for what doesn’t exist.

But it’s also because of the runaway cost of health care in much of the developed world, especially the U.S. The annual cost (in U.S. dollars) of treating a dementia patient is $868 in low-income countries; $3,109 in lower-middle income ones; $6,827 in upper-middle income regions; and $32,865 in high-income countries like the U.S. Not surprisingly, it’s in the low-income countries that the greatest share of care is informal and unpaid (58%), and in the high-income countries that it’s the lowest — a still-considerable 40%.

Global figures don’t mean a fig if you or a loved one is battling dementia — nor should they. But governments and policymakers are paid to take the longer view. In deciding how to allocate scarce research funds, they might do well to remember how much richer — both figuratively and literally — the world will be when this disease is in the past.

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