When it comes to aging, Japan is the future.
Many Japanese see their country as the first “super-aged” society. And it’s not just leaders in government, business and academia, but the general population as well. “Super-aged” has shot from academic theory to common sense in Japan, capturing a reality defined by longer lives and low birthrates. Well over a third of the population is already over 50 in Japan, and the fastest growing demographic is 80 and older.
For a visitor, there’s something fascinating and even exciting about seeing a nation adjust to an aging society. For example, there’s plenty of technological innovation – robotics, artificial intelligence and the computerization of most everything, including toilets. These “autonomous” technologies are filling in for the cohort of younger workers that simply were never born.
But there’s a darker side to the demographic shift: dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s, has already become a social and fiscal nightmare. By 2020, Japan will sell more adult than baby diapers, and this isn’t only because of the scarcity of infants.
It’s not surprising, then, that Marc Wortmann, the CEO of Alzheimer’s Disease International, picked Kyoto, Japan, as the site of this years’ annual conference. While the conference attracted attendees from over 100 countries – including the U.S., across Europe, Australia, China, India and Nigeria – more than half were from Japan. There were many representatives from Japan’s local Alzheimer’s chapters. Some came with elderly parents, many living with dementia, and some came from increasingly common “dementia-friendly communities.”
Three critical takeaways emerged from the conference:
1. There are people “living with dementia” all around. This is a truly new development, and it begins to give one a sense that we have entered a transformative phase in the politics of Alzheimer’s. I am reminded of AIDS, the model disease for how to use political attention to attract money, research and cures. The AIDS cause was promoted by Dr. Peter Piot, who headed up UNAIDS and become the catalyst for that disease’s political and funding support trajectory. In Kyoto, we met Dr. Yves Joanette, chair of the recently formed World Dementia Council, a product of the G-7 political commitment to curing Alzheimer’s during Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership in 2014. The genius of the WDC is that it has representatives not only from government, research, the academy and NGOs, but also from people living with dementia.
2. Global momentum continues to accelerate. In May, leaders from the World Health Organization will convene in Geneva to pass a global action plan on the public health response to dementia. This will be only the second time the WHO has taken such a step for a particular disease.
At the meeting in Kyoto, five new members brought into the ADI network – Bolivia, Gibraltar, Kenya, Namibia and United Emirates. This highlights the unfortunate truth that Alzheimer’s is a global burden, with a cost that will exceed $1 trillion in a few decades. By mid-century, 19 million people will be living with Alzheimer’s in Latin America, surpassing the 16 million in Europe. Africa and the Middle East will have 12 million with dementia, more than the 11 million in the U.S. and Canada combined. And the 63 million people with dementia in low and middle-income Asian countries, including China, will exceed every other region.
3. Elder caregiving is at the heart of progress. It would have been impossible to walk around the Kyoto Convention Hall and not be impressed by the powerful role elder caregiving plays in treating dementia. The innovation in this space is as profound as any in prevention. For example, one session at the conference was titled “Skin Health: A New Frontier to Improve Quality, Costs and Care for Older Adults with Dementia,” led by Dr. Akihiko Ikoma, Medical Director, Nestle Skin Health SHIELD Tokyo; Dr. Toshiya Ebata, Chitofuna Dermatology Clinic, Tokyo; and Hao Luo of the Pine Tree Elder Care Company in China and Assistant Professor at China’s Tsinghua University. New research was unveiled connecting dry and itchy skin (pruritis and xerosis) to Alzheimer’s care. Researchers also unveiled a piece of innovative technology – Itch Tracker – that will help caregivers address symptoms often mistaken for agitation.
The optimism about Alzheimer’s was palpable in Kyoto, along with the cherry blossoms and beginning of Golden Week. The WHO’s target date of 2025 for finding a cure now seems to be in reach. Stay tuned!