G8 health ministers have vowed to find a cure or treatment for dementia in 12 years and create a "dementia envoy" to help promote research into the illness.
The health officials gathered in London on Wednesday to discuss issues surrounding dementia but ended up learning more how little progress has been made.
Spending on research into dementia lags far behind other illnesses such as cancer and most drug companies have given up trying to come up with new medicines because no clinical trial has ever succeeded, the conference heard. Overall about $12-billion has been spent on drug research in the last decade without any success. And yet populations in all eight countries are aging rapidly, making the challenge more acute than ever.
"Society is facing a major challenge and there is a need to address dementia prevention from a public health perspective," said Edo Richard, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam.
"Alzheimer's is the only one of the top ten killers that has no way to prevent or treat effectively. We've got to make that change," added Harry Johns, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Association in the United States.
In a communique issued at the close of the G8 dementia summit in London, ministers committed to boosting funding for dementia research with the goal of finding a cure by 2025 British Health Minister Jermey Hunt, who chaired the meeting, acknowledged the target was ambitious considering that no drug or treatment is even close. But he said it was important to set a goal and hold ministers to it.
Canada's Health Minister Rona Ambrose told the conference that 1.4 million Canadians will have some form of dementia by 2031. That will cost the economy nearly $300-billion, she added.
During a break in the meeting, Ms. Ambrose acknowledged the failure of governments and drug companies to effectively tackle the issue but she said the G8 conference was an important step forward.
"This is about rallying everyone together to say we need to re-focus our efforts and now we need to do it globally," she told reporters. She added that Canada will be hosting a G8 gathering next year that will involve drug companies, researchers and government officials to concentrate on research efforts. And she said the federal government has committed nearly $1-billion to brain research.
When asked why Canada was the only G8 country not to have a national strategy on dementia, Ms. Ambrose said the federal government and provinces need to work together. "It takes collaboration," she said. "We live in a federation. We have 13 health systems. We have a different make up in our country than some other countries."
Ms. Ambrose also said Canadians have yet to come to grips with the scope of the dementia problem. "I would actually say that that is partially true," she said. "Because I've noticed, speaking to some of my colleagues here, that there's a heightened awareness that I don't sense in Canada yet. But I do sense it from the [provincial] health ministers…but I think now when it comes to care and intervention and that kind of program and that kind of a national plan, that conversation is just starting to happen."
Alain Beaudet, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research said part of the problem with drug research has been the complexity of the problem and the inability to properly diagnose dementia.
"One of the reasons it has taken so long is that we are dealing with the brain here," Dr. Beaudet said. "And we don't understand what are the basic mechanisms." However, Dr. Beaudet said some progress is being made and that governments and researchers are growing more aware of the problem as the population ages. "What's happening today is the realization at the political level that all countries are facing this," he said.