19 Sep 2021, 12:10

Living with Alzheimer's: China's health time bomb

  BEIJING, Sept 19, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - The first time Chen Shaohua went

missing and was picked up by police, the 68-year-old's family put it down to

   When he disappeared a second time, they realised he was deeply unwell --
but it was already too late.

   "We missed the early signs," daughter Chen Yuanyuan explained, adding:
"For several years our mother complained he was lying... but we couldn't
judge because we haven't lived with them for years."

   Doctors diagnosed Chen with Alzheimer's Disease, the most common form of
dementia, where people suffer impaired cognitive function including memory
loss, eventually needing full-time care.

   Approximately 10 million people have been diagnosed with the degenerative
-- and incurable -- brain disorder in China, which accounts for approximately
a quarter of the world's cases.

   As the country's population is rapidly aging, this figure is expected to
soar to 40 million by 2050, according to a study by the London School of
Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

   The report warned this surge in cases would cost the economy $1 trillion
each year in medical expenses and lost productivity as caregivers drop out of
the workforce.

   The World Health Organisation says that while dementia is not "an
inevitable consequence of biological aging", the strongest risk factor for
getting it is age.

   And while this is a growing problem worldwide -- experts say China is
poorly prepared for the challenge.

   The United States has 6.2 million Alzheimer's patients and 73,000 beds in
specialist treatment centres, while China has double the cases but fewer than
200 beds.

   "No healthcare problem looms larger in China than Alzheimer's Disease,"
said Wei Shouchao, a neurologist from Guangdong medical university.

   "It is the fastest-growing major illness on the mainland, and we are not
at all equipped to deal with it."

   - 'We never suspected' -

   When Chen started misplacing his keys or wallet, his family thought it was
just forgetfulness.

   The first time he went missing, it took 40 hours to find him. Police
picked him up after someone reported an attempted break-in.

   "(It) looked like the place where we used to live. Dad was confused. He
forgot we are now in Beijing... luckily no one assaulted him," his daughter
told AFP.

   Uncertain of what to do next, they bought him a watch that could help them
track him via an app, but when he went missing again after taking it off,
they realised he needed medical help. "We never suspected Alzheimer's because
we didn't have a family history and he is so young," said Chen Yuanyuan.

   As millions migrate to cities, old parents in rural China are "left behind
and left vulnerable", said He Yao, from the National Clinical Research Center
for Geriatrics Diseases.

   Lack of awareness among families means patients go without access to
proper medical care for years, he said.

   "This is a missed opportunity because early interventions can slow the
progression of the disease," he said.

   Last year, Beijing announced the Healthy China 2030 action plan that aims
to roll out community-level screening programs for the early detection of
Alzheimer's or dementia and raise public awareness of the disease.

   However, critics say the proposals do not include details about training
doctors, building dedicated care facilities or increasing the capacity of
public hospitals to treat dementia patients.

   "Rural doctors aren't trained for early diagnosis," said Wei.

   "Even Beijing has only one care home with staff trained to handle
Alzheimer's patients."

   - Missing parents -

   Chen is a former army musician who plays several classical Chinese
instruments including the bamboo flute.

   He is physically fit and has a clear memory of things that happened
decades ago. On the surface, the only indicator that something is amiss is
when he talks of past events as if they are happening now.

   "Chairman Mao attended one of our performances," he told AFP, referring to
a concert in the central city of Wuhan in the 1960s.

   Dementia patients often need round-the-clock care, and the physical and
mental toll on caregivers can be significant, particularly if there is little
professional help. Chen's son Chen Yunpeng has a busy job at a logistics
company but as there are no community facilities he must instead bring his
father to the warehouse where he juggles full-time work with keeping his
father safe.

   And when he disappeared, the family had to rely on a volunteer group that
helps find elderly people reported missing.

   Over a dozen people -- including retired civil servants, teachers and
housewives -- rushed to the site where Chen was last seen and helped police
pore over hours of CCTV footage from public cameras to find clues about where
he went.

   The team says it has helped find about 300 missing Alzheimer's patients
since 2016.

   "We get calls almost every day about missing parents from families across
the country," said Su Xiao, head of Beijing Zhiyuan Emergency Rescue Services

   "The real danger is of the elderly being trapped in abandoned construction
sites or falling into open pits or being out during bad weather."

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