When grandparents and parents of developed countries begin to lose lucidity, families put them in nursing homes and hope for modern medicine to ease their lives. The circumstances are different in the developing world, where dementia cases are on the rise and there is an increasing need to address the problem.

Dementia affects 44.4 million people in the world, two-thirds of whom are living in the developing world. This spread can largely be accounted for by the slow transition these countries are making toward increased economic stability. Diets high in animal fat have been noted as a cause of dementia, and as countries are developing, their diets have begun to incorporate more Western traditions. With this change in diet, dementia is reaching even more people.

Tobacco use has also been linked to dementia, and during the transition period in developing countries, tobacco companies have begun to target these regions of the world to expand their market. To add insult to injury, these areas are typically less educated about the risks of smoking and are therefore much more susceptible to smoke.

Low rates of education are also having a troubling effect on the rates of dementia in the developing world. Illiteracy and low educational achievement are two risk factors linked to dementia, and in impoverished areas around the globe, education is one area that is lacking. Often children forgo school completely to help support their families, or else they are not provided with the encouragement and support needed to succeed in school. Either case leaves them less educated and potentially more likely to develop dementia later in life.

Although increased life expectancy is a positive change for developing countries, it also leaves them more exposed to the risk of dementia. Denis Evans, who works at Rush University in Chicago, explains that, “Age is the biggest known driver of dementia.” With populations living longer, they begin to experience the ailments of old age. Because this transition toward longer life spans is relatively recent for many countries, they are currently ill equipped to deal with new medical concerns. Thus, they have begun an expensive game of catch-up.

As studies continue and the developing world gains exposure to the signs and symptoms of dementia, prevalence may not decline but the cases will be easier to handle. Increasing education in general, and more specifically to the risks of smoking and the benefits of a balanced diet, could also potentially lower the rates of dementia. We look hopefully to a brighter future where these countries will be able to address dementia and drastically improve lives.

– Magdalen Mae Wagner

Sources: Alzheimer’s Disease International, Physician’s Committee, NCBI, Alzforum