China Should Better Address Its Dementia Problem

June 30, 2016 Updated: June 30, 2016

Among other serious public health issues, China is facing the challenge of having to care for increasing numbers of dementia patients. This is due, to a large extent, to a parallel increase in ageing patients. While life expectancy was 45 in 1960, it is 77 now. One person in six is over 60 now, and by 2025 one in four will be. Despite the fact that China has now 9 million people with some form of dementia, the government is not yet prepared to deal effectively with this situation.

Dementia covers a broad category of brain diseases that cause a long term and frequently gradual decrease in the ability to think and remember daily life incidents, and it affects people from all social and economic conditions. The first signs and symptoms of the disease may be subtle. However, later on, language, emotional problems and a decrease in motivation appear as additional symptoms of this troubling condition.

Dementia has been mentioned in medical texts since antiquity. In the 7th century B.C., Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, describes the “senium” period of mental and physical decay in the years after the age of 73 years old. Aristotle and Plato also spoke of mental decay in advanced age, and viewed it as an inevitable process that affected old men and women that couldn’t be prevented.

Old Chinese medical texts also mention this deterioration of the intellectual faculties as the age of the “foolish old person.” Byzantine physicians also wrote about dementia, and mentioned at least seven emperors older than 70 who displayed signs of cognitive decline. In Hamlet and King Lear, Shakespeare mentions the loss of mental function in old age.

Before the 20th century, dementia was relatively rare, because a long lifespan was uncommon in preindustrial times. Following WWII, however, there was an increase in life expectancy, and the number of people over 65 in developed countries started to increase rapidly, and so did dementia.

A Chinese elder who suffers from senile dementia plays with a doll as a treatment to remind him of the old days at the Cihui Rehabilitation Center for the Aged in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China, on Sept. 2, 2005. (China Photos/Getty Images)
A Chinese elder who suffers from senile dementia plays with a doll as a treatment to remind him of the old days at the Cihui Rehabilitation Center for the Aged in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China, on Sept. 2, 2005. (China Photos/Getty Images)

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, which makes between 50 to 70 percent of cases. Other kinds of dementia include vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia. Sometimes more than one type of dementia may exist in the same person. In a small number of cases, dementia may run in families. Today, dementia is one of the most common causes of disability and poor health (morbidity) among older people.

Dementia affects almost 40 million people globally. 10 million of those are in China. The incidence of dementia is 3 percent among people between the ages of 65–74, 19 percent on those between 75 and 84, and nearly 50 percent on those over 85 years of age. According to some estimates, the incidence rate of dementia will increase by 100 percent in the coming 20 years. Before a person with dementia dies, he or she may experience several years of discapacity.

Public awareness of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, increased greatly when former U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced in 1994 that he was suffering from the condition. Today, although many more people know about dementia, those in China are lagging behind. Even more seriously, family members frequently do not understand the condition, so that more than 90 percent of dementia cases go undetected.

There are few facilities for diagnosing and treating senile dementia, and they are located at a few top hospitals. At the same time, there are only a few hundred doctors experienced enough to make an early diagnosis. In addition, most nursing care facilities in China can’t offer appropriate care for patients with dementia. In Shanghai, for example where an estimated 120,000 residents have some form of dementia, there are only a handful of nursing homes trained to care for these patients.

Dementia exacts a heavy burden on families and society. Because of its effect on families, dementia has been called a “family disease,” particularly because patients need long-term care. In addition, dementia places a heavy economic burden both in families and in the society. It has been estimated that the worldwide cost of dementia was $18 billion in 2015. This figure includes both direct costs of medical and social care and those attributed to informal care.

Many countries have national plans or strategies and consider caring for dementia patients a national priority, and invest considerable resources in the different areas of care. For example, British Prime Minister David Cameron has called dementia a “national crisis” since it affects 800,000 people in the United Kingdom alone.

The Chinese state should have an improved strategy of mass communication and education about the disease, intensive training of physicians and health care workers on diagnosis and treatment, and develop a national plan of action that addresses the main needs of care for all kinds of dementia.

César Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is a global public health consultant for several U.N. and other international agencies. He has carried out health-related missions in 50 countries worldwide. He lives in New York and writes extensively on human rights and foreign policy issues, and is the recipient of awards from Overseas Press Club of America, ADEPA, and Chaski, and recently received the Cedar of Lebanon Gold Medal. He is also the author of several U.N. official publications on health issues.