(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald—print edition— September 21, 2015)
Cases of dementia expected to surge 150 percent in Latin America over two decades
Alzheimer’s disease, the debilitative mental health disorder that can leave those affected as shadows of their former selves, has emerged as a quiet epidemic in Argentina and across the region. Increasing numbers of people are suffering from the incurable illness—and the numbers are expected to keep growing.
The latest World Health Organization (WHO) data estimates there are at least 300,000 cases of Alzheimer’s in Argentina, and that across Latin America and the developing world the number of new diagnoses of the people suffering from the disease is picking up pace rapidly. Latin America is expected to see a 134 percent to 146 percent rise in dementia cases over the next two decades, according to the WHO.
With Alzheimers currently in the global spotlight thanks to today’s World Alzheimers Day, local experts have pointed to a lack of public awareness over the disease, suggesting recently that the WHO figures for Argentina do not fully illustrate the scale of the problem both in the country and beyond, however, considering that many of those affected are never diagnosed.
They estimate that in 2010 there were at least 500,000 people affected by Alzheimer’s and that this number has certainly risen in subsequent years.
“Nobody knows exactly how many people have Alzheimer’s in Argentina, not least because many people fail to get diagnosed, but we do know it’s on the rise,” Dr. Guillermo N. Jemar, a neuropsychologist at Córdoba National University (UNC) and contributor to the expert support group Alzheimer’s Argentina, told the Herald.
“The latest figures we have put the number of cases at over 500,000 but we know there are many cases that are never reported,” he added, saying that the data came from 2010 and that the figure of half a million Argentine’s suffering from the disease was likely to be significantly higher today.
Alzheimer’s accounts for between 60 and 70 percent of all cases of dementia globally. It is a degenerative disease that causes loss or debilitation of neurons and synapses—the information receptors in the brain.
It becomes increasingly severe over a number of years, causing memory loss, delusion and decline in language abilities, eventually resulting in a loss of basic mental and physical functions.
TREATMENT AND INTEGRATION
As the world’s medical community places dementia in the spotlight in commemorating World Alzheimer’s Day, the disease in Argentina has become an increasingly serious concern among the medical profession who pointed to the stigma and lack of public awareness about the symptoms and effects of the disease being a major obstacle to improving treatment.
Dr. Natividad Olivar of the Argentine Neuropsychiatric Association and Alzheimer’s Argentina told the Herald that stigma surrounding the disease meant that sufferers felt a reluctance to report potential symptoms of dementia.
However, she said that greater integration between different fields in the health profession have helped provide a balanced approach to identifying the disease and fighting its worst aspects, for example, in combining psychological therapy sessions with pharmaceutical drugs that in turn slow down the degeneration of patients neurons and synapses.
“Here in Argentina there is deep integration now between the neurology and psychology fields when it comes to Alzheimer’s, and this has helped with diagnosis and treatment,” Olivar said.
She added that those such as herself and Dr Jemar of Alzheimer’s Argentina who practice neuropsychology—an experimental field in medicine—are demonstrating the benefits of enhanced cooperation between the two fields by pooling research. It is hoped that combining resources and treatment in this way might produce results to better stave off the worst symptoms of the disease, for which there is still no known cure.
One thing the country and Latin America as a whole do have in their favour in terms of vulnerability to the disease is a relatively youthful population, since the chances of contracting Alzheimer’s or dementia increase drastically when one passes 65 years of age.
“Fortunately, the population here in Argentina and in this part of the world generally is relatively young, and so the risk is lower than say in France or Germany,” Olivar said.
However, she also added that this demographic safety net “will change in time,” pointing like the WHO to the anticipated ageing of the Latin American population that will make Alzheimer’s a more prevalent issue, since dementia in all forms affects older people disproportionately.
In fact, the WHO expects that dementia generally and Alzheimer’s in particular will become a “global epidemic” in the decades to come, should expected demographic changes in the developing world affect an increase in the average age of the global population.
The WHO underlined that the number cases globally (currently at 47.5 million) was expected to rise by at least 7.7 million cases year on year, to reach 75.6 million in 2030 and almost triple the current total by 2050 to 135.5 million.
“Much of this increase is attributable to the rising numbers of people with dementia living in low-and-middle-income countries … Global population ageing will inevitably result in huge increases in the number of cases of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form,” the WHO said.