A leading international neuroscientist has criticised the Australian Government’s commitment to funding research into dementia.
More than 250,000 Australians suffer dementia and that number is expected to balloon to almost 1 million by 2050 as the population ages.
With 1,500 new cases each week in Australia, dementia is described as an impending epidemic.
Dementia receives $20 million a year in funding in Australia - just a fraction of the total amount the Federal Government spends on research for all chronic diseases.
Oxford University Professor Susan Greenfield, a fierce advocate for making science relevant to the public, says Australia’s research allocation for the disease is woefully inadequate.
Professor Greenfield, who is in Australia to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s, says Australia like other developed countries is neglecting the disease.
“Cancer and heart disease are devastating conditions. But the problem is that you’re still the person that you ever were, whereas when you have dementia you’re not,” she said.
“And I think that also makes people wary even of speaking of it.
“And whilst again cancer and heart disease are very serious, huge strides have been made in research, whereas with Alzheimer’s we’re still in the infancy, in the foothills if you like, of understanding what’s going on.”
Professor Greenfield says governments need to crunch the numbers on the economic cost of dementia.
“It’s the single greatest cause of disability in older Australians - that’s people who are 65 and over,” she said.
“The cost of replacing all the family carers at the moment, if you were to start paying the carers, will be estimated at $5.5 billion an annum.
“And if we lower our sights and just concentrate on delaying the onset of it, if we could do that - delay it for five years - then we’d be saving $67.5 billion dollars by 2040. So we are talking serious megabucks.”
‘No magic bullet’
While the medical breakthroughs have been limited, Professor Greenfield says that is all the more reason to keep ploughing money into research.
“I would hate to give anyone whose lives have been devastated by Alzheimer’s false hope that there’s some cure around the corner tomorrow,” she said.
“There’s no magic bullet. On the other hand we are understanding much more about some of the genes that might be involved.
“We’re understanding a little bit more about the processes in the brain that underlie this remorseless death of cells but translating that into pharmaceutical treatments takes a long time.”
With fierce competition for the research dollar, Professor Greenfield is keen to explore other options.
“What I think could actually be changing over this century is the rise and rise of the young entrepreneur - the people that have made their money out of the internet and the digital technologies - [who] may consider donating some of their money to people at the other end of the age span, that is to say not just the young brains but the ageing brains,” she said.
Alzheimer’s Australia says it is worried about the future of the Dementia Initiative, a program that has provided support and services to dementia sufferers and their families since 2005.
Its funding dries up in June 2013.
A spokesman for Federal Minister for Ageing Nicola Roxon says the recent budget has made changes to improve the way dementia grants and other programs are managed.
The Minister is also considering the findings of a Productivity Commission inquiry into caring for older Australians.
That report will be made public in the coming weeks.
By Emily Bourke
Australian Broadcasting Corporation