Health

G8 ministers meet to beat 'dementia time-bomb'

Sapa-AFP

Health ministers from the G8 nations are meeting in London to tackle what experts warn is a 'dementia time-bomb' as the world's population ages.

An elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease. (Madelene Cronje)

Ministers from the Group of Eight (G8) wealthy nations gathered with health experts and charities for the first ever conference on the incurable condition, which afflicts some 44-million people worldwide – most of them elderly.

Sufferers of dementia, of which Alzheimer's disease is the most common form, often end up needing full-time care as it attacks their memory, reasoning and other brain functions. Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI) warned in a report last week that the number of sufferers is set to surge, trebling to 135-million by 2050, as life expectancy rises around the globe.

Dealing with dementia cost the world an estimated $604-billion in 2010, according to the World Health Organisation. Ahead of the conference on Wednesday British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a worldwide boost in investment in dementia research, with Britain set to double its funding to $200-million by 2022.

The British premier is seeking similar pledges from fellow G8 nations Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States, and from pharmaceutical companies and charities. Ministers were expected to agree on a package of measures on international information-sharing and collaboration in research.

Cameron said that to beat dementia, governments would have to "work globally, with nations, business and scientists from all over the world working together as we did with cancer, and with HIV and Aids. Today, we will get some of the most powerful nations around the table in London to agree how we must go forward together, working towards that next big breakthrough," he said ahead of the conference.

Dementia causes mood changes and problems with reasoning and communication as well as memory loss. Most types of dementia grow progressively worse and cannot be cured. Medication and therapy are used to alleviate the symptoms.

Hopeful
British health minister Jeremy Hunt said he hoped the dementia conference would have a similar impact to the 2005 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland, when the G8 pledged action to halt the HIV and Aids epidemic.

"Today should be an optimistic day," said Hunt. "Scientists now are actually quite hopeful that they might have some drugs that can really make a difference to dementia that are coming on. We are all resolved that we really are going to do something about this as we face up to an ageing society." The Gleneagles summit was "a turning point in the battle against Aids", he said.

Jan Lundberg, executive vice-president for science and technology at pharmaceutical firm Lilly's, hopes that there could be a breakthrough in Alzheimer's treatment within five years. "Based on the progress we have done in understanding the pathophysiology of Alzheimer's disease, we have now a number of molecules in later stage development to become medicines," he said.

"I'm a firm believer that within five years there are good opportunities that we would have at least one or two approaches that could reduce the progression of dementia." He added: "Even better would be if we could treat so early that dementia never happens."

Britain holds the G8 presidency in 2013, and is due to pass the reins to Russia next year. – Sapa-AFP

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