More than a quarter of mainlanders are on track to be aged over 65 by the middle of the century. Photo: Bloomberg

Ageing China braces for onslaught of dementia with 30m cases predicted by 2050

With one of the fastest-greying populations in the world, China is on a global hunt for solutions to an impending health crisis as age-related problems such as dementia threaten to sweep the country.

With one of the fastest-greying populations in the world, China is on a global hunt for solutions to an impending health crisis as age-related problems such as dementia threaten to sweep the country, with 30 million patients predicted by 2050.

And while the growing number of elderly citizens threatens to burden the country's health care system and public facilities, China also faces a unique challenge under its one-child policy as the ratio of taxpayers and caregivers to senior citizens who need their help will soon shift dramatically.

David Gray, a British expert in health care issues, said his team was working with a northeastern province to build a service model, based on the British health care system, for treating mental diseases including dementia. He declined to identify the province, as no official announcement had been made.

"The project included sending doctors, nurses and care givers to the UK for training, so that they can return to China and train more caregivers," said Gray, a China health care specialist with the British government-sponsored Healthcare UK. He is currently in China leading a team from Britain on a trade mission.

Gray said a joint Sino-British project was being drafted and that Chinese health officials were discussing introducing it as a pilot programme. It is expected to be announced later this year.

"We need to train staff in a correct way. Dementia patients require a lot of care, so those people who take up the job have to be very compassionate," Gray said in a telephone interview. His group is scheduled to visit Hong Kong today.


He said there was no way for all patients to be kept in institutions, and so more community support and facilities were needed to allow patients to receive proper care at home.

Dementia in older people is caused by Alzheimer's disease about 60 to 80 per cent of the time, according to the American charity Alzheimer's Association. But other types of degenerative diseases can cause it as well.

Hong Kong's Department of Health estimates that more than 10 per cent of people older than 65 and 33 per cent of those older than 85 have dementia globally.

Alzheimer's Disease International, an umbrella organisation for Alzheimer's associations, estimated that the number of people living with dementia in 2013 was 44.35 million, which would increase to 75.62 million in 2030 and 135.46 million in 2050.


The group estimated that nine million people in China have dementia. But that number may be artificially low as many sufferers in rural areas are never diagnosed.

With the number of sufferers in China expected to reach 30 million by 2050, according to ADI, Gray predicted that eight million more caregivers would be needed in the country to meet that increased demand.


Maria Carrillo, a senior director with the Alzheimer's Association, said the growing number of dementia patients worldwide had been underestimated in previous years because many countries were not counting them.

"The updates are actually showing that … countries such as China and India [where a large-scale rise in dementia sufferers had not previously been anticipated] have actually got the fastest rising numbers when compared to other countries," Carrillo said.

There is no way to cure dementia. But a policy that focused on early diagnosis and prevention of conditions such as Alzheimer's may be able to turn it into a more manageable chronic disease, she added.


Carrillo said it was an important step for China to think about a country-wide strategy, research and how to create a national plan to tackle the problem.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Ageing China braces for onslaught of dementia