In the face of an increasingly aging population, today’s reality reveals a harsh truth: health systems in the EU and beyond are ill-equipped to provide early and timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and embrace innovative treatments that could help to preserve memory and, with it, independence.
Recent advances suggest that timely intervention may hold the promise to slow the memory decline in Alzheimer’s disease, making early diagnosis more critical than ever before. Yet without the necessary health care infrastructure in place to diagnose and provide treatment, we risk missing the crucial early window and the opportunity to delay — and hopefully in the near future prevent — distressing symptoms for patients and heartbreaking experiences for families.
The EU and its member countries have the opportunity to be remembered for leading in this space by increasing funding for research, improving health care infrastructure to support accurate diagnosis and timely intervention, and enhancing support services at a national and regional level. The forthcoming European Parliament elections in June 2024 are the ideal moments to make that pledge. For individuals, families and health care systems, Alzheimer’s disease is a ticking time bomb unless we invest in our future health today.
The EU is not prepared for Alzheimer’s disease
In Europe, approximately 7 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, a number set to double to 14 million by 2050.1 On top of the physical and emotional distress this will cause, there are direct financial and social implications on families and communities, with Alzheimer’s costs expected to reach a staggering €250 billion by 20302 — bigger than the GDP of Portugal3 — placing an additional and substantial weight on global health care systems that are already struggling under cost and capacity burdens.4
That’s why MEP Deirdre Clune is leading the call for a European Parliament hearing to discuss a focused EU strategy on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. “Timely diagnosis stands as a cornerstone in determining the appropriate treatment for patients,” argues Clune. “Therefore, the EU must create a strategic framework which lays out clear recommendations for national governments and recognises the toll of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease on societies across Europe, encourage innovation and take on board best practices to develop effective and efficient approaches. Together, with a unified approach and firm commitment, the EU can pave the way for better Alzheimer’s care.”
In the next EU political mandate, policymakers must answer the call by developing a comprehensive EU Beating Dementia Plan that specifically addresses the unique challenges posed by Alzheimer’s disease and building on established coordinated action plans for other significant health burdens, such as the EU Beating Cancer Plan. The European Brain Council and EFPIA’s, RETHINKING Alzheimer’s disease White Paper is a useful resource, calling for policymakers to rethink Alzheimer’s and offering policy recommendations to make tangible changes to improve the lives of people living with the disease.
EU member countries must commit to investing in diagnostic infrastructure, technology and integrated care that can help to detect Alzheimer’s disease at an early stage and ensure timely intervention resulting in the preservation of memory and, thereof, independent living and normal social functioning.
Laying the foundations at national level
While action is certainly needed at the EU level, huge opportunity lies at the national and regional levels. Each member country has the chance to apply well-funded national dementia plans that tailor their strategies and responses to address the distinct needs of their populations, making a real and meaningful impact on the people and health systems in their country.
Inspiration stems from Italy, which recently launched its Parliamentary Intergroup for Neuroscience and Alzheimer’s, dedicating its efforts to raising awareness, fostering discussions among national and regional institutions, promoting clinician and patient involvement, supporting novel research, implementing new diagnostic models, and strengthening patient access to care.
Italian MP Annarita Patriarca, co-host of the Parliamentary Intergroup, affirms: “Primary responsibility of a member state is to ensure to all citizens the greatest standards of diagnosis and access to treatment and care. Thus, it is necessary to put in place a strong collaboration between the public and private sector to strengthen investments in neurological diseases. Improving patients’ diagnostic and care pathways, especially in a disease area like AD with such a high unmet medical need and societal impact will be the core focus of the intergroup.”
Additionally, during the Alzheimer’s and Neuroscience Conference: a priority for the country in July, members of the Italian Parliament importantly put forward legislative and regulatory solutions to ensure an early and accurate diagnosis.
Leading the conversation on the international stage
Amid the growing burden of Alzheimer’s disease globally, this is a moment for policymakers to hold each other accountable. Member countries are uniquely placed to do this within the EU but also across the wider health care ecosystem, calling on countries and leaders to honor prior commitments that prioritized investment in relieving major health burdens, including Alzheimer’s.
Encouragingly, the May G7 Hiroshima Leaders’ Communiqué specifically recognized and supported dementia as a freestanding issue, breaking away from the typical categorization with NCDs. Moreover, the G7 health ministers published a joint Communiqué spotlighting the priority to “enhance early detection, diagnosis and interventions, including developing care pathways and capability and capacity building of health and primary care providers by strengthening primary health care (PHC)”.
These promising steps mean that Alzheimer’s disease is beginning to gain the recognition it deserves but also acts as a line in the sand to ensure complacency doesn’t creep in. Collectively, EU countries must assume a leading voice within the international fora, ensuring that Alzheimer’s disease remains a global health care priority and receives the investment it warrants.
Time to commit to action in Alzheimer’s disease
September marks World Alzheimer’s Month, and its theme Never Too Early, Never Too Late, reiterates the importance of early diagnosis. It presents a valuable foundation to initiate discussions on country- and regional-level strategies to drive and strengthen diagnostic infrastructure and services for the prevention, diagnosis, case management, monitoring and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Unless we act now, a generation of people will be forgotten as they begin to lose their memories,” shares Frédéric Destrebecq, executive director of The European Brain Council. “By recognizing the urgency of the situation and making concerted investments, we can forge a path toward a more compassionate, empowered future for individuals, families and communities impacted by Alzheimer’s, and remember all those who’ve been lost to this devastating disease.”
It is never too early, never too late, to be remembered for taking action against this debilitating disease.
1 – Jones RW, Mackell J, Berthet K, Knox S. Assessing attitudes and behaviours surrounding Alzheimer’s disease in Europe: key findings of the Important Perspectives on Alzheimer’s Care and Treatment (IMPACT) survey. The journal of nutrition, health & aging. 2010 Aug;14:525-30.
2 – Cimler R, Maresova P, Kuhnova J, Kuca K. Predictions of Alzheimer’s disease treatment and care costs in European countries. PLoS One. 2019;14(1):e0210958. Published 2019 Jan 25. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0210958
3 – Published by Statista Research Department, 20 J. GDP of European countries 2022. Statista. June 20, 2023. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/685925/gdp-of-european-countries/.
4 – The Economist. Why health-care services are in chaos everywhere. Available at: https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2023/01/15/why-health-care-services-are-in-chaos-everywhere. Accessed: July 2023.