The cost of dementia is smaller than Covid-19, but no less heartbreaking

The intersection between dementia and the pandemic is particularly bleak

In the same week as Elon Musk's fortune rose to an estimated $115 billion, the world's third richest person introduced a pig named Gertrude to the world.

Gertrude has recently had a computer chip implanted in her brain to demonstrate the capabilities of wireless brain-computer interfaces. Describing the technology as a “Fitbit in your skull”, Mr Musk said it was able to predict movement with a high degree of accuracy.

In time, it could help develop treatments to neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, the degenerative disorder that is typically associated with memory loss, disorientation and mood changes and occurs most commonly in the over 60s.

Dr Alois Alzheimer first identified the condition in 1906, yet there is still no effective treatment for dementia, although a few drugs can sometimes keep the condition at bay temporarily in some people. Too often, however, such treatment proves to be a small sticking plaster applied to a large gaping wound.

The technology, which is being trialled through Mr Musk’s start-up venture Neuralink, is regarded as a significant leap forward by some, although others are more sceptical. The company has been provided with more than $150 million worth of funding – most of it from the billionaire himself – to undertake further research. Human trials are some distance away, but this line of inquiry has some possibilities.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk talks to media as he arrives to visit the construction site of the future US electric car giant Tesla, on September 03, 2020 in Gruenheide near Berlin. Tesla builds a compound at the site in Gruenheide in Brandenburg for its first European "Gigafactory" near Berlin. / AFP / Odd ANDERSEN

The Dementia Statistics Hub estimates that the care cost of the disease globally is around $1trillion annually and will probably double by 2030. Populations are growing older and life expectancy has risen over the past several decades. The same organisation reports that the cost of dementia to the global health sector is more than cancer and heart disease put together, while also noting that Alzheimer's receives relatively small amounts of investment funding.

<span>A new case is diagnosed every three seconds. And yet dementia organisations find it hard to attract more funding</span>

Other statistics paint an equally stark picture: a new case is diagnosed every three seconds. More than 45m people globally were said to be living with dementia five years ago. That number is expected to double every two decades, according to Alzheimer's Disease International.

This year's coronavirus pandemic has delivered misery to many communities around the world, straining economies and health care systems. The total cost of the crisis globally is estimated by the World Economic Forum to be around $10tn.

The human cost in terms of loss of family, livelihood, education and general well-being, among other consequences, is almost too grave to contemplate. Most of us believe, however, that the despair of the pandemic will substantially subside at some point. Our hunch is that an effective treatment can and will be found.

The intersection between dementia and the pandemic is particularly bleak.

In the UK, the Office of National Statistics reported that there were 30,000 more deaths among care home residents in the three-month period that marked the worst of the Covid-19 outbreak in Britain this year, when compared to the same time frame in 2019.

Two-thirds of those excess deaths were reported to have been directly caused by coronavirus infection, highlighting the vulnerability of those in care homes to wider health issues.

In a crisis of few good news stories, the race to find a coronavirus vaccine is one of the most positive narratives. More than 150 Covid-19 vaccines are reported to be in development. Russian officials say they can produce up to 500m doses of its Sputnik V vaccine in the next year.

So why do dementia organisations find it hard to attract more funding when Alzheimer’s is a curse as cruel as Covid-19?

That much is hard to fathom. The Economist newspaper this week described dementia as "the forgotten problem", which is both a perfect summation of the relatively low ranking that the disease occupies in many governments' list of priorities and may also be a play on words too far for those who have had to watch as a loved one had their identity stolen by the condition.

I have lived some of that experience. My late mother survived for nine years after formal diagnosis, gradually descending deeper into the dark cavern of the degenerative disease, which robbed her of her cognitive and motor abilities.

Relatives rarely forget the traumas of seeing someone torn asunder in this manner. “She has dementia” become the three words by which you define your loved one in their final years. It is a short sentence that explains everything and yet leaves so much unsaid about the terrible realities of the condition.

I can provide no prescription to tackle this incurable disease in this column, except that the collective response to the global pandemic of 2020 has been extraordinary and that gives me hope.

The cost and threat to our societies posed by dementia is smaller and less disruptive than Covid-19, but no less heartbreaking or urgent and, crucially, every year it compounds. Our best defence against dementia at the moment is to live a healthy, active and inquisitive lifestyle. We should be able to do better than that by now.

Governments and institutions have been galvanised into action to develop a vaccine and to reduce our risk and exposure to Covid-19. Perhaps the same can be achieved with dementia treatment. We must find the will to win the war with Alzheimer’s before it overwhelms societies and economies. Time is running out.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Nick March

Nick March

Nick is one of The National’s assistant editors-in-chief. He was previously Comment Editor and editor of The Review section, the paper’s weekly politics and culture supplement. He has been on staff since 2008 and is a regular columnist. He is also the author of a book chronicling the history of one of Abu Dhabi’s older schools.