The worldwide costs of dementia will reach a staggering US$604 billion this year, and those costs will soar as the number of sufferers triples by 2050, a new report warns.

The report, issued by Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI) on World Alzheimer's Day, predicts that as populations continue to live longer, dementia cases will almost double every 20 years, to around 66 million in 2030 and 115 million in 2050.

And much of that rise will occur in poorer nations, says report author Prof. Anders Wimo of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.

"The major reason for the increase in the number of people with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias is increasing age," Wimo told CTV Canada AM Tuesday, from London.

"We have had this pattern in high-income countries for many years, but now we are also having a shift, because we are seeing the same trend in low-income and middle-income countries, with the number of elderly increasing a lot."

Wimo notes that the highest cost of dementia in high-income countries is the cost of long-term care, such as nursing homes. Low-income countries, meanwhile, have almost none of this care infrastructure, so the costs shift to family members and other informal caregivers.

The report found that low-income nations currently account for 14 per cent of the cases of dementia, in part because  expectancies in such countries can be low. Yet the countries account for less than one per cent of total worldwide costs.

Rich nations, on the other hand, account for 89 per cent of the costs and 46 per cent of cases.

The report says if dementia costs were a company, it would be the world's largest by annual revenue, exceeding Wal-Mart (US$414 billion) and Exxon Mobil (US$311 billion).

Wimo says in order for countries to cope with the massive wave of dementia cases coming, every country should develop some kind of dementia care plan, as well as support program for informal caregivers, who also play important roles in providing care, even in high-income countries.

ADI Chair Dr. Daisy Acosta says the report underscores that Alzheimer's disease and other dementias "are the single most significant health and social crisis of the 21st century."

"World governments are woefully unprepared for the social and economic disruptions this disease will cause," she said in a news release.

The report found that Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are some of the costliest illnesses, and yet research and investment is at a far lower level than for other major illnesses. Wimo says there is still so much to understand about dementia.

"We know some of the patterns of how the disease develops but we don't know the reasons. We know there are genetic matters involved… but we don't have the information of how to treat it," he said.

The report calls for research funding into Alzheimer's disease and other dementias to rise to a level more proportionate to the economic burden of the condition. That might require as much as a 15-fold increase in funding to reach parity with research into heart disease, and a 30-fold increase to achieve parity with cancer research.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, and affects memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to handle daily activities. After age 65, the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's roughly doubles every five years. At the age of 85, the odds of a person developing it are close to 50 per cent.

And yet, Alzheimer's is not considered a normal part of aging; it is a progressive, degenerative disease that destroys the brain and eventually proves fatal.

According to the ADI, these are 10 early symptoms of dementia:

  1. Memory loss
  2. Difficulty in performing everyday tasks
  3. Problems with language
  4. Disorientation to time and place
  5. Poor or decreased judgment
  6. Problems with keeping track of things
  7. Misplacing things
  8. Changes in mood or behaviour
  9. Changes in personality
  10. Loss of initiative