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Dementia becoming worldwide concern

WASHINGTON - Natasha Khan and Daryl Loo of Bloomberg News looked at the growing problem of Alzheimer’s in China.

According to one estimate, the country now has the world’s largest population of sufferers of the disease:

“In China, there are only about 300 qualified physicians to treat more than 9 million dementia sufferers. The shortage is overwhelming families and threatening resources from an already stretched welfare system as the country ages. Life expectancy in China has increased seven years to 76 since 1990.

“The flip side of that progress is that an aging population has combined with rapid modernization to fuel a rise in mental illness from depression to Alzheimer’s even as the nation has directed only limited resources toward the elderly.”

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Alzheimer’s patients grew 53 percent to an estimated 5.7 million.

This isn’t just a China story.

After years of being thought of as a disease of the wealthy, Alzheimer’s is increasingly proliferating in middle- and lower-income countries.

A 2008 study in the Lancet found that rates of dementia “in urban Latin America (approaching 10 percent) resemble those in high-income countries.”

According to the London-based Alzheimer’s Disease International, “Already 62 percent of people with dementia live in developing countries, but by 2050 this will rise to 71 percent.

“The fastest growth in the elderly population is taking place in China, India and their south Asian and western Pacific neighbours.”

It is obviously something of a victory for global public health that life expectancies, even in developing countries, are reaching the point where conditions like Alzheimer’s or diabetes are become widespread problems.

But it’s also a sign that in the future, we may need to reframe some of our priorities.

Joshua Keating, previously an editor at Foreign Policy, is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics.