W. Galen Weston is chairman and president of The W. Garfield Weston Foundation
For the first time in history, there are more Canadians 65 years of age and over than there are under the age of 15. The progress that has seen life expectancies increase dramatically in the last few decades has ushered in a host of implications connected to our aging population, including a significant increase in neurodegenerative diseases of aging. These include forms of dementia such as Alzheimer's, and movement disorders such as Parkinson's and ALS.
Recently, a leading medical journal, The Lancet, said that "an effective therapy for Alzheimer's disease is perhaps the greatest unmet need facing modern medicine." Sadly, our inability to cure or even slow these diseases means patients, families and communities may be crippled by their effects.
Next week, the world gathers in Toronto for the Alzheimer's Association International Conference, one of the largest research forums around the biggest medical challenge of our time. Thousands of leading thinkers, researchers and clinicians in dementia and neuroscience from more than 70 countries will discuss the enormous challenges and the latest ideas in research, treatment and care.
As we take our place on the world stage, this is an opportunity for Canadians to start a national conversation about how these diseases are affecting people and communities across our country and what we can – and should – do about it.
Today, estimates suggest these diseases affect almost one in 12 Canadians and cost Canada $22-billion a year. If nothing changes, in just one generation that number will grow to almost one in seven and the costs will at least double, ultimately overwhelming our health-care system, our economy and society. Globally, the statistics are equally staggering. The estimated global cost of dementia is expected to be $1-trillion by 2018. Currently, the direct costs of dementia represent 0.6 per cent of global GDP. This doesn't include less tangible costs, such as the social and financial impact of the "sandwich generation" – the group caring for both aging parents and children.
Canada has a world-class neuroscience research community actively engaged in addressing these diseases, but funding is significantly lower than for many other diseases, and there is a critical gap in the middle of the process. This means that the pipeline of new treatments is limited. Today, less than 4 per cent of all drugs in the early stages of development, and only 1 per cent of drugs in their final stages, are for dementia. We must, and we can, do better.
The W. Garfield Weston Foundation established the Weston Brain Institute with a focus on bridging that gap in the process through $50-million in funding and additional resources like mentoring, networks and support for clinical trials for projects that mostly fall outside current funding models.
We know that investing in research works and we are making big bets on projects that will directly accelerate treatments. We have seen how targeted funding has reversed some of the great medical crises of our time. In two decades, HIV and AIDS went from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease. Similar gains have been made in other areas, such as heart disease and various forms of cancer.
We also know that when the problem is so enormous, even a relatively small advancement can have a significant impact. If we can delay the onset of Alzheimer's by an average of two years, we can reduce the costs to Canada over the next generation by $219-billion. Not to mention the positive difference this can make for patients, families and communities.
Throughout history, Canadians have made a global difference with groundbreaking discoveries like insulin, the polio vaccine and treatments for epilepsy. We believe that with the right kind of support, Canadian researchers can do the same today in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases of aging.
As a result, the Weston Brain Institute is announcing an additional $50-million in funding for Canadian researchers with world-leading projects that will significantly advance the field – breakthroughs with the potential to have an impact on the millions of people in Canada and around the world who are living with, or affected by, these diseases.
Our commitment is to accelerate treatments by helping to keep our brilliant scientists here in Canada and advance our national contribution, while turning revolutionary science into breakthrough therapies for these insidious diseases.
As Toronto welcomes the best and brightest from around the globe, our country has an opportunity.
Canada, let's lead.