THE BLOG

Dementia: From Myths to Reality and Solutions

02/19/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015
Alexander Raths via Getty Images

If you've ever known someone with dementia -- a family member, friend, or acquaintance -- you know just how devastating conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, can be for patients and their loved ones. And yet, there are equally unnerving societal and economic impacts resulting from dementia that we must address -- now.

Dementia has been around since before we had a name for it, so why address it with such fervor now? Many countries around the world are experiencing significant growth in their senior populations -- a happy effect of advances in medicine, lifestyle, and scientific advances. But this trend takes an ominous turn when one imagines a world in which the number of people living with dementia suddenly jumps to unprecedented levels.

And yet, despite this threat, global understanding and awareness of dementia lags behind many other diseases. With this in mind, I address two common myths surrounding dementia, as well as point to solutions that have the potential to turn around this rising tide of concern. We can tackle this challenge head on, but it must be done collectively, with the tools of science, policy, advocacy, and innovation.

Myth: Dementia is a normal part of aging.

Reality: Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia are devastating neurological disorders. However, despite many years of research, there is still much to be learned about what causes dementia. What we do know quite clearly: dementia is projected to affect 115 million people by 2050 if we do nothing to change the course of disease today.

Solutions: Publicize the need for evidence-based research to uncover features of healthy brain aging versus disease processes that lead to dementia. And support innovations that make this research easier and more effective, such as shareable patient registries that researchers from typically competitive organizations can use to identify appropriate patient populations for studies.

Myth: There are drugs available to slow the progression of dementia.

Reality: While there are a few drugs aimed at treating symptoms associated with diseases like Alzheimer's, there are no drugs on the market to target the underlying cause. Billions have been spent on drugs that failed during the drug development process; since 1998, there have been 101 unsuccessful attempts to develop drugs to treat Alzheimer's, with no new drugs approved in over a decade. The large financial risk of developing AD drugs and other therapeutics aimed at dementia deters pharmaceutical companies and other potential investors from this high-risk scenario. Additionally, spending on dementia research from all sources, including government, does not keep pace with disease costs; in the U.S. funding for HIV/AIDS research is more than five times the level of that for dementia research, despite the fact there are five times as many Americans with Dementia than with HIV.

Solutions: Develop new funding mechanisms for high-risk research, as well as new approaches that mitigate the financial risks of executing clinical trials. Examples discussed in a new report include crowdfunding and crowd equity, accessing funds from the traditional middle class; venture capital models with government or philanthropy taking first loss (and thus allowing a competitive return on investment to attract limited partners from capital markets), and social impact investing, as well as specific policy changes such as patent life extension and market protections.

The takeaway? By addressing not only the myths associated with dementia, but the challenges associated with the reality of our current situation, we have a golden opportunity to proactively tackle dementia. But it will take the involvement of people in all sectors -- government leaders,policy makers, academic and industry researchers, nonprofits, philanthropists, healthcare practitioners and caregivers.

The development of many national Alzheimer's plans, as well as G7, WHO and OECD leadership and commitments to more effectively address dementia, are promising. Let's hold on to that promise by activating the solutions we know will make a difference, to individuals, societies, and economies.