Alzheimer's is on the rise in the UAE and around the world. Image Credit: Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease could increase by more than 600 per cent within the next 15 years if preventative measures are not implemented immediately, leading medical experts have warned.

The incurable progressive brain disorder currently affects only about 4,300 residents in the UAE, but the high prevalence of chronic diseases means that nearly 30,000 patients could be suffering from it by 2030, Dr Anders Wimo, adjunct professor of geriatric general medicine at Sweden’s renowned medical university, Karolinska Institute, told Gulf News.

“According to rough 2010 estimates, the total societal cost of the disease was about $110 million (Dh403 million) in 2010. This burden will increase exponentially as the country works to provide medical care and informal support for patients and their families. The only way to stem this is to create awareness, and ensure that residents live healthier lives,” Dr Wimo said.

Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is still rare in the UAE, mainly because the country has a relatively young population. As this population ages however, the prevalence of the disease is expected to rise, especially among individuals aged 75 and older.

“Internationally, only one per cent of 60-year-olds suffer from Alzheimer’s. But the risk doubles every five years, so 50 per cent of 90-year-olds face dementia,” the doctor said.

Moreover, there is a strong relationship between Alzheimer’s and metabolic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular conditions. Diabetes already affects about 20 per cent of the UAE’s adult population between 20 and 79 years of age, while cardiovascular diseases are the top killer in the nation.

Since most expatriate residents leave the country upon retirement, the elderly population is mainly composed of Emiratis, who are at greatest risk of facing the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s. Not only does the degenerative disease impair cognition and everyday functioning, it also disrupts patients’ behaviour and harms their relationships with others.

“Unfortunately, awareness about the disease and its effects is extremely limited, and family members brush off many common symptoms like memory loss as simple ageing,” said Dr Khaldoun Mozahem, neurology consultant at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology.

The doctors recommended essential physical activity like walking for 30 minutes at least five times a week, and balanced diets to counter the risk posed by unhealthy living.

“Otherwise, there will be a tremendous social burden as families must constantly supervise patients or place them in specialist long-term care facilities,” Dr Mozahem said.

Dr Wimo also recommended that policy makers in the UAE establish a diagnostic infrastructure for the disease, especially so that early warning signs are detected by primary health-care physicians.

“Some patients also become completely dependent and need medical care, so there is a need to set up long-term care facilities. Very few of these exist at present. Even within the UAE culture where the elderly are cared for at home, families will require the help of specialist nurses and caretakers as the prevalence of the disease increases,” he added.

The expert also called for more empirical studies in order to determine the real cost of the disease.