HEALTH

Experts Say We Need A National Dementia Strategy, Because We Can't Afford Not To

It currently costs the taxpayer $14.6 billion.

15/02/2017 3:09 PM AEDT | Updated 15/02/2017 4:33 PM AEDT

With Dementia currently the second-highest cause of death of Australians and the rising prices national of support services costing the nation $14.6 billion, Alzheimer's Australia has called on the government for a national strategy to address the disorder.

The number of people diagnosed with dementia in Australia has risen to more than 400,000 with the estimated costs of care expected to rise by more than $4 billion over the next eight years, according to a report released by Alzheimer's Australia on Wednesday.

Acting CEO of Alzheimer's Australia Victoria, Leanne Wenig told The Huffington Post Australia the figures should come as a surprising wake-up call for the government.

"Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia, the time has come for a national dementia strategy that seeks to address it," she said.

"We're calling for the government to have a national dementia strategy that focuses on three areas -- a comprehensive risk reduction campaign that links brain health to lifestyle issues, a consumer-led, quality in-care program and greater access to respite services."

According to The Economic Cost of Dementia in Australia 2016-2056 report, early government intervention aimed at dementia incidence rates in people aged 65 years and above would reduce the number of sufferers by 7 percent by 2025 and save the taxpayer $120 billion by 2056.

"We know dementia is a growing problem and if we don't do something now, and it's important we act now, those numbers are growing to reach epic proportions. The financial drawdown it'll put on this country is unsustainable," Wenig said.

"If we intervene now, we can reduce those costs in the long term and ensure that people with dementia have the care that they need, they don't have to deal with the stigma they deal with each day and generate a community approach to managing the issue."

Wenig also told HuffPost Australia the costs of national dementia care, which affect sufferers directly and indirectly, are "flying under the radar" and can be reduced with adequate education in community and residential care environments.

"Direct costs are things like appointments with their GP [and] purchasing pharmaceuticals. The indirect costs are things like lost wages, including carers who need to give up employment to provide care for someone with dementia. It multiples for the number of people it impacts," she said.

"If adequate care and education is provided in community and residential care settings, then the likelihood of people needing hospitalisations will reduce.

"Likewise, at the moment there's quite a significant use of medications in aged care to manage behaviours of concern and if we were able to improve the quality of care and education, then they would be less reliant on pharmaceuticals and the person suffering dementia would be able to live a more comfortable life."

For Dementia advocate Suzie O'Sullivan, who has been living with the condition since her diagnosis in 2016, a stronger government focus on research into prevention is crucial to addressing the issue.

"We have to get the money in to research to be able to find out either cures, or more importantly, prevention, and obviously we need the government to take seriously the health of our brain," she told HuffPost Australia.

"It's so important to get the money for research and we need this report to show that if these numbers are going to continue, there needs to be dementia-specific training for people working in support areas."

O'Sullivan, who is in her 50s, was diagnosed with the condition after realising she was having difficulties learning new technologies, mixing up words when speaking and making spelling errors when making study notes.

"I started to think something wasn't right and went to my GP and then eventually a neurologist who couldn't find any answers," she said.

"Eventually I was sent to a memory clinic and... after diagnosis I was thinking maybe I had a little cognitive thing going on but I never expected dementia."

Supplied/Arsineh Houspian - Alzheimer's Australia
Leanne Wenig, Acting CEO Alzheimer's Australia Vic and Suzie O'Sullivan, Dementia Advocate, at a recent meeting with Martin Foley MP, Victorian Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing.

She believes there still remains a stigma around dementia diagnoses that makes people find it hard to talk about their condition or have the confidence to branch out to support communities and services.

"I'm lucky I still have the ability to talk about my diagnosis but there are a lot of people out there who feel that they can't talk about it or stay in their homes away from their community and I feel that really has to change.

"The most important thing is to keep your confidence. The diagnosis doesn't change who you are --I'm still the same person I was before that day I was told I had dementia."

Wenig believes a healthy lifestyle for sufferers is the key to moving forward post-diagnosis and government needs to promote the idea that the messages sent out in relation to heart health also apply to brain health.

"It's all about remaining socially active, physically active, looking after what you eat, not smoking," she said.

"It needs a national approach and an injection of funds that can support those services to be widely available."

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