By Dr. Serge Gauthier Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Psychiatry, Medicine, McGill University Director of the Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders Research Unit, McGill Center for Studies in Aging, Douglas Hospital.
As a researcher and neurologist who treats people with dementia, I feel their frustration when I tell them there is no cure and that the drugs we can prescribe are of limited value.
Throughout my career, I’ve supported research into dementia therapeutics, which promises to improve quality of life for those living with dementia by curbing symptoms and slowing its progression. But our own progress as researchers is slow. Too slow.
More research and increased resources are required if we are to achieve the same kind of breakthroughs that large government investments have made possible for other public health conditions, such as HIV-AIDS and the Ebola virus.
According to the National Institutes of Health, our neighbors in the United States spent an estimated $991 million on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia-related research in 2016. In the United Kingdom, with former Prime Minister David Cameron as a champion, the government invested £66 million in research, according to Alzheimer’s Research UK. This represented a doubling of funding for dementia research since 2009/10 and accounts for 3% of the UK’s total medical research investment.
So how does Canada compare to these and other G7 nations in funding Alzheimer’s research? According to data from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), for the fiscal year 2012/13, we spent $52 million on neurodegenerative diseases. That’s 5% of CIHR’s total research budget of $1 billion. During that same period, CIHR invested $170.5 million (or 17%) of its total research budget on cancer research; $99.2 million (or 10%) on cardiovascular research; and $17.9 million (or 2%) on stroke research.
Let’s put these investments into context. Today, an estimated 564,000 Canadians are living with dementia. By 2031, this figure is expected to rise to 937,000, an increase of 66%. Prevalence data available through the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada shows that 1.3 million Canadians are living with heart disease and more than 400,000 Canadians are living with long-term stroke disability. Any way you look at these numbers, it’s clear that dementia research is woefully underfunded.
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are one of the biggest public health challenges in Canada today ‒ as big as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Globally, dementia is being called an epidemic. We must do our part here in Canada.
Despite a welcome government focus through the CIHR Dementia Research Strategy and the establishment of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, our investment in dementia research remains low. A national dementia strategy will help accelerate investment in all areas of dementia research, including basic, clinical and quality of life. Even still, Canada will require a substantial increase in publicly-funded research and related infrastructure.
Populations are aging much faster than ever before. Last year, Statistics Canada reported that for the first time in our history, Canada has more seniors than children. A commitment to more public funding for dementia research is the best place to start.
The CCNA has developed advocacy toolkits to support mobilizing a national strategy. Have your say by signing the toolkit’s template letter.