Alzheimer’s disease is a startling illness. It is incurable, and it slowly, gradually, and unstoppably ravages a patient’s ability to communicate, remember events, function in society, or simply make sound judgments. So, the patient will be dependent on loved ones to gradually take care of her or him, and eventually a long term care facility with a trained staff may oversee the care of the individual until the end of life is reached.
Statistics about this illness abound. Here are but a few from the United States:
- In the August 2003 issue of the Archives of Neurology it was estimated that more than 4.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, this number is said to have doubled since the year 1980.
- A 1992 Gallup survey of 1,015 Americans revealed that one in ten had an immediate family member who suffers from the disease while at least one in three had a friend or acquaintance that has this illness.
- In 1989, the Annals of Neurology reported that it is not unheard of for individuals in their late thirties or early forties to be affected by this disease in the form of an inherited kind of Alzheimer’s disease.
- In 1989, JAMA advised that one in ten Americans over the age of sixty-five, and at least half of Americans aged eighty-five and older were affected by the disease.
These are sobering statistics indeed, yet one wonders how they compare around the world. The United States Census Bureau has released its 2004 research figures, and according to their data, Alzheimer’s disease is in rapid development throughout the world.
- Central America, as defined by the populations of Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua, show almost 293,000 cases of Alzheimer’s disease.
- South American cities, namely Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela made up for almost another 4.5 million individuals affected by this illness.
- Australia reports nearly 293,000 cases.
- China has nearly nineteen million patients who have been diagnosed as suffering with Alzheimer’s disease.
It is essential to note that the international urbanization of previously small communities in the developing third world countries have led to an increase in elderly people living alone, oftentimes away from the safety net of younger family member on whom they may have relied in the past for care giving. This trend will at some add an unusual strain on the economies of such countries, since suddenly a large number of individuals will require intensive medical care while nobody is left or willing to pay for it. A deeply disturbing finding in a 1996 issue of Psychological Medicine found that in such developing countries elderly patients who suffered from dementia may have been permitted to die prematurely through the withholding of adequate care.
It is quite apparent that aging gracefully for many is a myth. It is equally obvious that Alzheimer’s disease is a serious threat to the overall well being of the geriatric populations around the world. Many countries have woken up to the fact that the elderly live longer, in part because of the leaps and bounds with which medicine has evolved and diseases are being cured or prevented altogether. Caregivers are scarcer to come by than before, since previously the tight-knit family unit would take care of its own. As a result of the trends of sprawling cities and job opportunities in distant locations, the young and restless have moved on, leaving behind the elderly. When these elderly fall ill, it is often not possible or not feasible to recreate the family units and therefore private nursing homes are often called upon to provide the daily care of those who can no longer care for themselves. For those whose health insurance plans do not cover such facilities, and whose savings are too meager to supplement any government assistance they may be receiving, public nursing care is often the only alternative. Unhappily, very soon these institutions threaten to be overrun with those in need of care, and it is questionable that supply will be able to keep up with the demand. It will behoove any country to quickly and decisively take far-reaching measures to ensure the caring of its growing elderly population so that its social services funds will not suddenly find themselves exhausted.
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