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A million Canadians will likely have dementia by 2030. A ‘transformative’ donation aims to help | CBC News



A million Canadians will likely have dementia by 2030. A ‘transformative’ donation aims to help | CBC News

Physicians and researchers who specialize in dementia care and prevention say a new $30-million donation to seven Toronto hospitals and organizations will significantly bolster their programming.

And they say the money is coming at a crucial time — as the health-care system faces a rapidly aging population and growing needs.

The Slaight Family Foundation, a charity founded by media magnate Allan Straight, announced the large gift Tuesday. 

Samir Sinha, director of health policy research at the National Institute on Ageing at Toronto Metropolitan University, says the number of Canadians with dementia is increasing. 

He points to a 2022 study by the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada that estimates close to 1.7 million people will have dementia by 2050, believed to represent 3.6 per cent of the population. As of 2020, about 600,000 people in Canada had dementia, or about 1.6 per cent of the population. 

That’s why this donation will be “transformative”, he said. 

“The greatest risk factor for dementia is just age. The older you get, the higher the risk you’ll be living with dementia…so just by nature of our population aging, we’re going to see many more Canadians living with dementia,” he said. 

According to the Alzheimer’s society, dementia is an overall term for the symptoms caused by brain disorders that can cause cognitive failures around thinking and memory. Alzheimer’s disease refers to a specific type of dementia that primarily impacts memory. 

Some form of memory loss is normal for people over age 65. But to have your memory deteriorate to the point where you cannot take care of yourself, is abnormal, according to the society. 

“This gift is really going to help people prevent dementia, but it’s also going to make sure that we can better support better ways of delivering care and conducting the research we need,” said Sinha.

The money will be doled out to seven organizations, including:

  • Alzheimer Society of Canada: $3 million

  • Baycrest: $9.5 million

  • Belmont House: $700,000

  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH): $6.5 million                                                                        

  • Egale Canada: $3 million

  • National Institute on Ageing at TMU: $3 million

  • Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre: $4.4 million

Sinha helped the foundation learn more about which organizations to give the money to. He says not only will it go toward treatment, it will also help with public education and awareness of how to recognize signs of dementia and assess brain health.

Terry Smith, the program director at the Slaight Foundation says the organization decided to make the donation because dementia is an illness that many people have experience with in their families. 

“Quite frankly, there is not a lot of support for those living with dementia. It just is something we feel, if there’s something that can be done, then maybe the foundation can provide some support,” she said. 

The institutions in Toronto are world-class and deserve to have more resources, she said. 

Ottawa predicts ‘significant’ impact on system

Sinha says preventing dementia is a priority for the organizations using the funding. Too many people believe that dementia is a normal part of aging, when it’s not, he said. 

“They don’t even know that there’s actually things they can do to prevent dementia from developing in the first place,” he said. Staying socially engaged, eating a well-balanced diet and getting consistent exercise can all help ward of the disease, he said. 

Dr. Samir Sinha is the the director of geriatrics at Sinai Health, the University Health Network in Toronto and the director of the National Institute on Ageing. He says the $30-million gift will help with dementia prevention as well as treatment. (Provided by Sinai Health)

The federal government has a national dementia strategy that  was released in 2019. 

The strategy explains that while dementia is not an inevitable part of aging, age is an “important risk factor” for the illness. The growing aging population in the country will increase the number of people living with dementia as a result, it says. 

The impact of the illness on the health-care system is “significant” as there is no cure. Health-care costs for people with dementia are about three times higher compared to those without it, the report says. 

Neil Vasdev, the scientific director of the brain health imaging centre at CAMH, says he and his team have been developing ways to identify early signs of dementia through brain scans. 

They’ve been examining a protein called tau and other enzymes to see if they can be early indicators of Alzheimer’s, said Vasdev.

The donation CAMH is receiving is “critical,” he said. “Especially for Canada to continue to have a major role and lead the way,” he said. 

Vasdev said CAMH and other health-care organizations continuously apply for grants and government funding. But those can take years to come through — and this donation will be helpful immediately.

The federal government’s dementia strategy says it’s providing $50 million over five years to the Dementia Strategic Fund, which is run by the Public Health Agency of Canada, toward government initiatives to prevent and find treatments for dementia. Organizations focused on dementia have also been able to apply for a portion of the funding.

The funding began rolling out in 2019.

Continued investments needed: scientist

Allison Sekuler, president and chief scientist at the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation at Baycrest Health Sciences, says the donation will allow for an immediate expansion of programming.

She said it will now be expanding its services into underserved communities in Toronto and across the country. 

That will include connecting people to their free online brain health too along with hearing tests as hearing loss is associated with an increased risk for dementia, she said. 

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and surrounding areas are pictured from a drone on 28-Sep, 2021. CAMH is one of seven organizations that are receiving a charity donation for dementia care. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

The health-care system as it stands now, is not ready, she said. 

CBC Toronto asked the Public Health Agency of Canada to respond to criticisms that they aren’t providing enough funding for dementia care. In a response, the agency pointed to investments outlined in its Canada’s dementia strategy on its website. 

In a statement, Ontario’s Ministry of Health said its investment in the province’s dementia strategy will be $120 million over the next five years. 

But institutions doing the work need more immediate funding, Sekuler said. 

“If we don’t address these issues now, this is not sustainable,” she said. “It’s not just because of the billions of dollars Canada will be spending to address the problem directly and indirectly, but also because of the cost to human beings,” she said. 

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