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Patients with Alzheimer's and dementia are sit inside the Alzheimer foundation in Mexico City April 19, 2012. Alzheimer's is a progressive, degenerative disease that robs people of memory, reasoning and the ability to communicate.

© Edgard Garrido / Reuters/REUTERS

A pledge by the G8 countries to find a cure or treatment for dementia in 12 years is highly optimistic considering no drug is anywhere close to being developed, health officials have acknowledged.

The promise came at the end of a day-long meeting in London involving representatives of health, business and non-profit sectors from Canada, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and Italy. In a communiqué, G8 health ministers vowed to identify a cure or "disease-modifying therapy" by 2025. They also promised to "significantly increase" the amount they spend on dementia research and share scientific data. They also plan to appoint a global envoy for dementia innovation to co-ordinate international efforts.

"No one here is in any doubt about the scale of the dementia crisis," British Prime Minister David Cameron told the conference, adding that one new case of dementia is diagnosed every four seconds around the world. "This disease steals lives, wrecks families and breaks hearts."

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The 2025 target immediately came into question and Britain's Health Minister Jeremy Hunt conceded it was ambitious. "We know that it's a big challenge and I don't think we have that cure yet," he said. "If we don't aim for the stars, we won't land on the moon. I think we should be aiming for the stars."

Dementia is a term used to describe Alzheimer's and other diseases in which brain cells die in vast numbers. Developing a drug to stop the deterioration has proven fruitless so far despite roughly 10 years of efforts and $12-billion (U.S.) spent by drug companies.

Not one clinical trial has succeeded and officials say some drug makers have given up altogether. Over all, spending on dementia research is a fraction of the amount devoted to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other illnesses, even though the number of those affected is soaring as the population ages. About 44 million people worldwide have dementia, an increase of 22 per cent in three years.

"In terms of a cure, or even a treatment that can modify the disease, we are empty-handed," World Health Organization director-general Margaret Chan told the meeting. "The 'business as usual' model hasn't worked."

Harry Johns, chief executive of the U.S. Alzheimer's Association, said Alzheimer's is the only disease "among the top 10 killers that has no way to prevent or treat effectively."

Part of the problem is the stigma surrounding dementia that hampers fundraising, said Alain Beaudet, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. "It's not as easy to get philanthropic money" for dementia studies, he said. "I would say it's a bit like the mental-health problem."

Dr. Beaudet added that dementia poses a difficult challenge for researchers because the science is so complicated. "The brain is complex. It's probably the last frontier in terms of biology," he said. "But we are starting to understand these mechanisms better. So there is really hope at the basic science level."

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Health Minister Rona Ambrose told the meeting that by 2031 the number of Canadians with dementia will increase to 1.4 million from 747,000 and the cost to the economy will jump to nearly $300-billion (Canadian) from $33-billion. "If you look at the aging demographics in Canada and many of our [G8] countries, this is a huge looming problem," she said.

Earlier she told reporters that Canadians have yet to fully grasp the seriousness of the problem. "I've noticed, speaking to some of my colleagues here [in London], that there's a heightened awareness that I don't sense in Canada yet," she said. And while the federal government has spent nearly $1-billion on dementia issues, Canada is the only G8 country without a national strategy. Ms. Ambrose said federal and provincial health officials are beginning to work together on the issue.

Mimi Lowi-Young, CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Canada, welcomed the G8's commitment to boost funding and find a cure by 2025, saying it's an important statement about the need to tackle the illness. "This is a transformative event for Alzheimer's," she said. "There is no question about it."

For some people like Tom Coppins, talk of a cure by 2025 seems remote. Mr. Coppins, who lives outside London, was diagnosed with dementia three years ago at the age of 58. He began noticing problems when he hit 55 but it took his doctor three years to make the diagnosis.

"I think they've got to set a goal [for a cure], whether it pans out that way or not, I don't know," he said Wednesday after listening to Mr. Cameron. "But if you dangle the carrot, people will chase it. Let's hope it is a good thing."

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