15 per cent of people with dementia under 65: Alzheimer society

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are typically seen as afflicting the elderly, but new data suggests an increasing number of baby boomers are also being struck by the brain-destroying diseases.

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are typically seen as afflicting the elderly, but new data suggests an increasing number of baby boomers are also being struck by the brain-destroying diseases.

Of the half-million Canadians affected by various forms of dementia, about 71,000 — or almost 15 per cent — are under age 65, says a study by the Alzheimer Society of Canada. Of those, about 50,000 are 59 or younger.

"We know that we're finding far more individuals in their 50s and 60s who have dementia," said society CEO Scott Dudgeon. "We're talking about dementia generally, including Alzheimer's disease."

The rising tide of cases among these not-quite seniors as well as their older counterparts threatens to swamp the health-care system and severely affect the economy, Dudgeon warns.

"I guess the thing that's most dramatic when you look at the numbers is this grey tsunami that people have been talking about … seems to be arriving now," he said. "And when you start looking at the number of people who are going to be developing dementia over the next few years, the impact is going to be tremendous."

With Canada's aging population, the society predicts that within five years, an additional 250,000 people could be diagnosed with Alzheimer's or another dementia. By 2040, that number could swell to between one million and 1.3 million.

"As it stands today, the number of Canadians living with Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia will more than double within a generation," said Ray Congdon, the society's volunteer president.

Costs to soar

The study also set out to evaluate the effect the growing number of dementia cases will have on Canada's economy, from increased health-care costs to forgone income for both individuals affected by the condition and those who must leave jobs to care for them.

Dudgeon could not provide a price tag based on the updated prevalence projections because that analysis has not yet been completed. But he allowed it would be "far in excess" of the current estimate of $5.5 billion per year, based on data from the Canadian Study on Health and Aging in the early 1990s.

Some of that higher cost could be attributable to the increasing number of people developing dementia at a younger-than-expected age, while they are still in the workforce, he said.

"The reality is that the business and industry sectors are also being affected as our boomer generation, a generation of leaders and mentors, are affected by dementia," Dudgeon said. "If you've got dementia in your 50s, it's going to have an impact on your earning power and that's obviously going to have an impact on taxation revenue for the government."

Jim Mann of Vancouver knows too well the fallout from dementia, including the financial one.

Two years ago, at age 58, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and had to close the communications-government relations business he'd begun more than a decade earlier.

"You have to face up to your abilities or, quite frankly, your inabilities and what you can and cannot do today — and knowing in a year or two or three, or whatever, that it may not be quite as good then as it is today."

"So you do have to make future plans and corrections a lot earlier than you thought," said Mann, who is married but has no children. "Your financial planning is never based on this."

Mann said the societal stereotype of someone with Alzheimer's "is a very old person in the late stages of the disease," so many people don't realize that dementia can occur even decades earlier.

"The more people think of Alzheimer's as a natural progression of a very elderly person, there won't be the attention paid to it by people, by government, in trying to promote the research to find ways to resolve the disease," he said.

"I think it's important for people to be aware that it does hit people that are younger. The way you can educate people is to advocate and to put a face to the disease, and say, 'I'm younger and I have it.'"

Dudgeon said more resources are needed to deal with the escalating incidence of dementia among Canadians.

"This is a horrible disease that has all the prospects of overwhelming the health-care system unless we stop it," he said. "But the amount of money being invested nationally in dementia research (about $28 million a year) is paltry relative to the scale of the health problem."

"I think it's a huge health issue and we need to take it more seriously."