Experts Sound Alarm
On Rapidly Increasing
Alzheimer's Epidemic
By Y.P. Rajesh
COCHIN, India (Reuters) - Alzheimer's, the ``silent epidemic'' that afflicts primarily elderly people, is causing increasing concern and spurring scientists to find the cause and a cure. There are now an estimated 18 million victims -- some 5 percent of the world's elderly population -- suffering from the progressive, degenerative disorder of the brain that affects memory, emotion and thought processes. Experts forecast that by 2020, Alzheimer's, which reduces victims to near vegetables before it takes their lives, will affect 30 million people, with some 75 percent in developing countries in Asia and Latin America. MOST COUNTRIES YET TO WAKE UP TO DANGER With frightening predictions like that, alarm bells should have been ringing loud and clear. But Alzheimer's experts who were in the southern Indian city of Cochin for an international conference recently said that apart from a handful of wealthy Western nations, few countries have awakened to the danger. ``In many countries, it is still viewed as normal for older people to develop memory problems,'' said Peter Whitehouse, Neurology professor of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Ravi Anand, global head of the central nervous system unit of the Swiss pharmaceutical group Novartis, said it was difficult to understand why a disease that affects five to 10 percent of the population above the age of 65 was given undue attention. Last year, Novartis launched Exelon, a drug that slows the progress of Alzheimer's. But the drug is presently approved in just 40 countries. Mohan Issac, head of the psychiatry department at India's National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, said Alzheimer's and other dementia were ``only being recognized now'' in India and many other developing countries. ``In a way, these developing countries constitute about two-thirds of the world population...and when you say two-thirds of the world is not alarmed, that itself is scary.'' DEVELOPING WORLD STILL TACKLING TRADITIONAL HEALTH PROBLEMS One of the main reasons for the developing world's inability to focus attention on the relatively new Alzheimer's scare is its preoccupation with traditional health problems. ``For countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, tuberculosis, cholera and malaria are still serious epidemics they need to battle,'' said one expert. Martin Prince of London's Institute of Psychiatry, an expert on the global prevalence of Alzheimer's, said the focus in developing countries tends to be on child health care, maternal health and reproductive health. ``These are the main priority areas for reasons understandable, and probably quite justifiable,'' he said. The West has had about 100 years to experience the transition of its young population to old age. ``But this is a transition India, Latin America and China in particular, are going to go through in only 20 to 30 years,'' he said. THE ELDERLY WIN LESS SYMPATHY Perhaps another explanation for the relative neglect of Alzheimer's is the cruel reality that many societies care less for their citizens the older they become. ``The diseases of the elderly are not taken with the same degree of seriousness because older people are viewed by some as not as valuable,'' said Whitehouse. Anand brands that ``a very stupid logic,'' as the elderly have a lot to contribute to society from their experience and wisdom. Experts also point out that other diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, have become a focus of global attention in a very short span of time because they affect younger people. ``I am sure if Alzheimer's was something that happened to people in their 20s and 30s there would be much more publicity about it,'' said Jane Gilliard, director of Dementia Voice, a dementia services development Centre in Bristol, England. Issac said that even in developed countries like the United States and Britain, health care schemes ration resources for any problem afflicting people above the age of 60. He said problems like HIV/AIDS, heart diseases and cancer get much more funding because policy-makers know and relate to people who are afflicted by these diseases. ``But they are not emotionally able to understand what Alzheimer's is,'' he said. Nori Graham, chairman of the Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI), which organized the conference, said the need to raise awareness about the disease was the most important recommendation of the meeting. ``The need to continue raising awareness among the general public, politicians and health care professionals is the first priority for action in all countries,'' she said. Experts said a heightened awareness would automatically bring methods of caring for patients that presently are almost nonexistent in the developing world. ^REUTERS@