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An estimated 35.6 million people worldwide - more than the population of Canada - are living with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, according to a new report.

Furthermore, the prevalence of dementia is climbing steadily, so the number of people living with the condition is expected to hit 115 million by 2050. That is, of course, barring a significant breakthrough in the prevention or treatment of the brain-destroying illness.

"The crisis in dementia cannot be ignored," said Debbie Benczkowski, interim CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Canada. "Unchecked, dementia will impose enormous burdens on individuals, families, health-care infrastructure and the global economy."

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In fact, the World Alzheimer Report, released yesterday, emphasizes that beyond the people suffering from Alzheimer's, there is a tremendous burden - financial, physical and psychological - on their unpaid caregivers.

Most strikingly, the report reveals that caregivers suffer rates of depression ranging from three to 40 times those of similar people who are not caring for a loved one with the disease.

According to a compilation of studies, caregivers of those with dementia spent an average of 7.4 hours daily assisting their charges with daily activities such as washing, dressing, going to the toilet, laundry, shopping and cooking.

The bulk of the burden rests on the shoulders of women, who make up about 85 per cent of caregivers for those with dementia.

Alzheimer's Disease International is a non-profit federation of 71 national groups that represent people with Alzheimer's and related dementias. The group commissioned scientists to come up with an estimate of how prevalent the condition is worldwide.

The 35.6-million total is broken down by region:

North America, 4.4 million people (including close to half a million in Canada);

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Europe, 10 million;

Asia and Australasia, 16 million;

Latin America and the Caribbean, 3.3 million;

Africa, 1.9 million.

Daisy Acosta, chairwoman of Alzheimer's Disease International, said that dementia is fairly well catalogued in developed countries such as Canada, but that the numbers are clearly underestimated in middle- and low-income countries.

"Dementia is a hidden issue," Dr. Acosta said: There is still a lot of shame and stigma related to all brain diseases in much of the world.

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The report estimates that, over the next 20 years, cases of Alzheimer's will more than double in Asia and Latin America, due to better diagnosis and population growth.

By contrast, it forecasts that cases will jump 40 to 60 per cent in North America and Europe, due principally to aging of the population.

Alzheimer's is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, which causes thinking and memory to become seriously impaired. The two hallmarks of the disease are deposits of plaque in the brain, and tangles that interfere with signals in the brain.

According to the report, the global cost of dementia exceeds $315-billion (U.S.) annually. Most of those costs are incurred in high-income countries, but costs are rising quickly in low- and middle-income countries.

In Canada, about one in every 11 people over the age of 65 is living with Alzheimer's or a related dementia.

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