Paula Rochon is a geriatrician, the vice-president of research at Women’s College Hospital and the Retired Teachers of Ontario Chair in Geriatric Medicine. Jaimie Roebuck is a communications specialist at Women’s College Hospital.
Canada: We are on the heels of an epidemic. Roughly 25,000 new dementia cases are diagnosed every year and more than half a million Canadians are currently living with this neurological condition, reports the Alzheimer Society of Canada. By 2031, that number is expected to hit 937,000 – a staggering 66-per-cent increase.
The majority of those who suffer, too, are women: they make up two-thirds of those diagnosed with this condition. Age is the greatest risk factor for dementia and on average, women live longer than men, making them more vulnerable. The number of women with dementia in long-term-care homes substantially exceeds the number of men with dementia, and women also represent two-thirds of those providing unpaid care for individuals with this condition.
So Canada’s first national dementia strategy, laid out by Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor in June, is an important step forward. But it remains unclear whether there will be as much success implementing it. As a mounting public-health crisis in our country, we can no longer afford to forget about dementia.
The strategy gets a lot of things right. It integrates a sex and gender lens to identify high-risk individuals and populations and those who experience barriers to services and diagnoses. This makes sense: To develop tailored solutions for the women who are disproportionately affected, we need to make sure that they are well represented in studies and that we are reporting the information obtained from both sexes separately. Creating carbon-copy treatments for women and men is neither acceptable nor effective. Our population is diverse; shouldn’t our solutions be too? Canada’s national dementia strategy encourages this needed, but often absent diversity by highlighting the specific needs of women and other groups that are too frequently overlooked, including cultural-minority communities and LGBTQ2 individuals. In this way, the strategy marks an important step forward in achieving equitable dementia care for all.
Canada’s dementia strategy should also be commended for its emphasis on prevention. It addresses the misconception that dementia is only a concern once we join the 65-plus cohort, noting that this condition can begin as early as 20 years before symptoms are observed. This strategy highlights the interventions and modifiable factors that are most effective in reducing risk, including regular physical activity, maintaining a balanced diet, staying socially connected and being educated. It promises to advance research around modifiable risk and protective factors, as well as expand public awareness of these factors and help create environments that promote healthy living. It also promises to build the evidence needed to implement effective intervention. Such knowledge is the catalyst to change.
If this all sounds ambitious, well, it is. That’s good. But that also makes its greatest flaw all the more visible: the relative lack of funding devoted to its implementation. The amount of financial investment must match the magnitude of the strategy’s objectives, so in this case, we have to ask: is $50-million over five years, the funding announced for the strategy in the most recent federal budget, enough to meet the scale of the challenge ahead?
If the promises outlined are fulfilled, our government has the potential to drive real change and combat one of the most important global health crises today. As a collective, we have to ensure that the strategy is strong not only on paper, but in practice.
Smart solutions are born from good ideas, but also from funding that can meaningfully support continuous collaboration and research, both of which are required to treat and ultimately prevent this condition. Our government needs to amplify its investment in this strategy to shape the future health landscape of our nation.
We must join the 32 other countries who are currently at the forefront of the global fight against dementia. Canadians – particularly women – depend on it.
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