Epidemic of dementia

A recent survey by a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry study team found that 4.62 million Japanese suffer from dementia, nearly 1.6 million more than last year’s estimate. The new study included early-stage patients who have not yet needed to use nursing care services.

The study’s more inclusive approach reveals that an epidemic of dementia has already arrived in Japan. The rate of dementia in elderly people was found to be 15 percent. This figure will likely rise as the Japanese population grows increasingly gray.

Dementia refers to many different types of symptoms, the most commonly known being Alzheimer’s, but it can be considered a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life and generally require care. In a small number of cases it can be treated with hormone or vitamin therapies, but generally, dementia requires extensive care and assistance.

The study wisely called for a review of the government’s program to address dementia-related issues, and some progress has been made. However, much more needs to be done, especially because the costs related to dementia will continue to greatly increase.

The estimated cost of dementia worldwide in 2010 was put at $604 billion. That includes informal care, direct costs of social care by professionals and at residential settings, as well as the direct costs of medical care.

The problem is not confined to Japan, but is a global issue. A 2010 survey by Alzheimer’s International estimated that there were 35.6 million people with dementia worldwide.

That figure will nearly double by 2030 to 65.7 million and become 115.4 million in 2050. A recent paper calculated that China alone had 9.19 million people with dementia, of whom 5.69 million had Alzheimer’s in 2010.

Japan needs to address this health crisis. Early diagnosis and intervention are the best means to treat dementia, but that requires increased awareness, new policies and higher budgets.

Less than half of dementia cases are reportedly recognized during checkups or other treatments. The government should include testing for dementia during all health checkups and make such checks regular part of what doctors look for during treatment for other health issues.

A systematic approach to diagnosing and treating dementia would be efficient. It would ensure that the right treatment and care is received. The ministry should also work together with other countries. Japan has much to learn from the policies and systems of other countries, but also has much to offer to those other countries because of the relatively advanced stage of aging and long life expectancy for the Japanese population in general.

Most forms of dementia cannot be cured, but all forms can be treated and managed to ensure the best quality of life for such patients and to lessen the burden on their families. Those who have it deserve the best care the medical system can provide and the best future planning the government can offer.