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globe editorial

Images of Mario Gregorio, 62, taken on July 3, 2010, spending time at his home in Burnaby, B.C., and out walking and reading - something he does regularly to stave off thoughts of his progressing alzheimer's disease. Mr. Gregorio lives alone, and since being diagnosed he has developed many tricks and tools to remind him of things he needs to do in his daily routine.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

In the new world of fearless senior citizens - the zoomers - where an 89-year-old Ontario mayor runs for re-election in a city of 745,000, where a federal judge in Kansas still presides at age 103, where others write operas, sky-dive and race the 100 metres well into their 80s, there is a largely hidden group that should not be forgotten. Those who have dementia will be a large and growing, and difficult-to-care-for, population. They will not zoom.

Dementia should be a major public-health priority. It needs orders of magnitude more research funding. One hundred and 10 years of research have had little practical effect on prevention or treatment, but that is no reason to give up, or accept dementia as an inescapable part of the condition known as getting old. It's a disease. There is a group of Canadian scientists whose hope is to make this disease as rare one day as polio. That may be farfetched, but then, dreams often sound farfetched, until someone makes a discovery. Even making a dent in dementia, in part by stressing physical exercise and a socially-engaged life for people over 65, would be a major contribution.

To say dementia is largely a disease of the elderly is true - so is cancer, for that matter - but what is implied is an inevitability, like that of death itself. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Norway, have rebelled against this passive approach. In Canada, several provinces have strategies, but there is none at the national level. The Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the government's medical-research funding body, has $5-million a year for an international project on dementia. Compare that to the $225-million announced yesterday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty for Grand Challenges Canada, a five-year health project that seeks novel solutions for developing countries. It's a great idea, but what about the grand challenge of Alzheimer's, and other forms of dementia?

More senior citizens are in Canada's future, and more of them will be living longer. Dementia will loom increasingly large. Already there are 100,000 new cases each year, and rising. An estimated 1.1 million Canadians will suffer from dementia in 2038, up from 480,000 now. The direct costs of caring for them today are $8-billion a year; between now and 2038, the total spent directly on care will be $92-billion. The loss of an individual's ability to contribute to herself, her family and society is, on a community-wide scale, impossible to calculate.

It will soon be unremarkable to see 90-year-olds driving cars on Canadian roads. Even as senior citizens become more visible than ever before, a great number of others will drift off into a private darkness. This country should not wait till that darkness falls over a million Canadians to make the disease a priority in research, prevention and social support.