National / Social Issues

Japan's Cabinet OKs new program focused on dementia 'coexistence and prevention'


The Cabinet on Tuesday approved a new program for dementia that focuses on prevention and helping patients with the illness live more comfortably.

The program is aimed at curbing growth in welfare spending at a time when Japanese society is rapidly aging.

One in 5 people aged 75 or over are expected to have the disease by 2025.

“While placing an emphasis on the viewpoint of people with dementia and their families, we will make coexistence and prevention the two wheels of a cart to strongly propel measures (against dementia),” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a meeting of ministers in charge of the program.

Whether the measures will be effective remains unclear due to a lack of scientific data about prevention methods for the illness, which involves memory loss and the decline of other mental faculties.

The government initially sought to set a numerical target, aiming to reduce the number of dementia patients in their 70s by 10 percent over the next decade. But the plan was scrapped amid criticism from those with the disease and ruling party lawmakers that patients might be blamed for their own illness.

Instead of defining prevention as “not getting the disease,” the new program defines it as “delaying the onset of dementia and slowing development of symptoms once patients develop them.”

Because some studies suggest that social interaction and exercise can help mitigate symptoms, the program also calls for the establishment of more places for senior citizens to gather and workout, take part in leisure activities and dine together.

While the government has been providing subsidies to municipalities that provide such gathering places, they have failed to attract enough people.

The new program states the central government will create a guideline for promoting activities at such places and raise the participation rate of people aged 65 or over to about 8 percent from 4.9 percent in fiscal 2017.

Among measures for helping patients’ lives, the program calls on public transportation operators to address issues including the removal of barriers that prevent patients from using them.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimates some 7 million people will suffer from dementia in 2025, when the country’s baby boomers will be aged 75 or older.

Also on Tuesday, the government announced a series of measures to prevent car crashes caused by elderly drivers, including emergency brakes and vehicle-free zones around schools, following a string of crashes involving children.

One in 4 people aged 80 or over drives a car every day, the government said in a survey published Tuesday, another challenge resulting from the country’s aging population.

Japan has been rocked by several tragic incidents involving elderly drivers plowing into schoolchildren, and there are suspicions that the aging motorists had inadvertently pressed the accelerator instead of the brake.

“We should not waste any time in ensuring that children’s journeys to school are safe,” Abe told Cabinet ministers.

Tokyo will carry out an “emergency safety inspection” of school commuting routes by the end of September and promote the use of cars with emergency stopping devices to counteract accidental stepping on the accelerator.

The National Policy Agency will also consider introducing a new category of driver’s licence for elderly people, allowing them to operate only cars equipped with emergency stopping devices, a Cabinet Secretariat official said.

Details of these measures will be fleshed out by the end of March but officials have begun working on policies that can be carried out immediately, the official said.