WASHINGTON - More than 35 million people around the world are living with Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia, says the most in-depth attempt yet to assess the brain-destroying illness - and it's an ominous forecast as the population grays.
The new count is about 10 percent higher than what scientists had predicted just a few years ago, because earlier research underestimated Alzheimer's growing impact in developing countries.
Barring a medical breakthrough, the World Alzheimer Report projects dementia will nearly double every 20 years. By 2050, it will affect a staggering 115.4 million people, the report concludes.
"We are facing an emergency," said Dr. Daisy Acosta, who heads Alzheimer's Disease International, which released the report today.
The United States and other developed countries long have been bracing for Alzheimer's to skyrocket. But the report aims to raise awareness of the threat in poorer countries, where finally people are living long enough to face what is mostly a disease of the 65-and-older population.
In poorer countries, "dementia is a hidden issue," Acosta said, and that's complicating efforts to improve earlier diagnosis. "You're not supposed to talk about it."
The new study updates global figures last reported in 2005. Since then, a flurry of research on Alzheimer's in developing countries has been published, leading Alzheimer's Disease International - a nonprofit federation of more than 70 national groups - to ask those scientists to re-evaluate. After analyzing dozens of studies, the scientists projected 35.6 million cases of dementia worldwide by 2010.
That includes nearly 7 million people in Western Europe, nearly 7 million in South and Southeast Asia, about 5.5 million in China and East Asia and about 3 million in Latin America.
The report puts North America's total at 4.4 million, although the Alzheimer's Association of the United States uses a less conservative count to say more than 5 million people in this country are affected. The report forecasts a more than doubling of dementia cases in parts of Asia and Latin America over the next 20 years, compared with a 40 percent to 60 percent jump in Europe and North America.
The report urges the World Health Organization to declare dementia a health priority and for national governments to follow suit. It recommends major new investments in research to uncover what causes dementia and how to slow, if not stop, it.
About Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, incurable and fatal brain malady that destroys brain cells. It has no cure. Age is the biggest driver of Alzheimer's; some of the same factors that trigger heart disease - obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes - seem to increase the risk of dementia, too. The disease afflicts one in eight people 65 and older, and nearly one in two people over 85. Today's drugs only temporarily alleviate symptoms.