File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor said she has an intimate understanding of the difficulty that comes with dealing with a family member who’s in cognitive decline.

Prevention key focus of dementia strategy released by federal government

OTTAWA — The cornerstone philosophy behind the federal government’s long-awaited strategy for confronting dementia is a simple one: prevent Canadians from developing the condition in the first place.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, who unveiled the strategy Monday at an event in Toronto, said she has an intimate understanding of the difficulty that comes with dealing with a family member who’s in cognitive decline.

“Being the daughter of a mother who lives with dementia, it is certainly near and dear to my heart,” Petitpas Taylor said in an interview.

“When I see many family members that have had to deal with the challenges, I know, because I’ve been there and we certainly want to make sure that we do all that we can to alleviate the stress that’s involved.”

The government’s dementia plan, which focuses primarily on prevention, advancing therapies and helping patients and caregivers, includes $50 million over five years to support the strategy, money that was announced in the federal budget earlier this year.

It defines dementia as a collection of symptoms affecting the brain that include a decline in cognitive abilities such as memory, language, basic math skills, judgment and planning. Mood and behaviour can also change as a result, the document notes.

The report says more than 419,000 Canadian seniors have been diagnosed with some form of dementia, and they rely on an average of 26 hours a week of help from relatives and friends. Some 78,600 new cases of dementia are diagnosed every year among those aged 65 years and older, with 63 per cent of those being women.

At its current rate, the condition will cost caregivers and the health care system a staggering $16.6 billion a year by 2031.

“As this number does not include those under age 65 who may have a young onset diagnosis, nor those that have not been diagnosed, the true picture of dementia in Canada may be somewhat larger,” it says.

“While dementia is not an inevitable part of aging, age is the most important risk factor. As a result, with a growing and aging population, the number of Canadians living with dementia is expected to increase in future decades.”

Canadians can stave off the danger as they get older by getting more exercise, adopting healthier eating habits and avoiding tobacco, all of which can increase the risk of stroke, a common cause of dementia.

“There is growing persuasive scientific evidence that healthy living from an early age may prevent or delay the onset of dementia.”

Petitpas Taylor also announced $46 million over five years for the second phase of Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, a hub for research on dementia created in 2014.

The federal government plans to contribute $31.6 million through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, with an additional $14.4 million being provided by partners, including the Alzheimer Society.

Alzheimer Society of Canada CEO Pauline Tardif sent out a email Monday urging supporters to keep up the pressure on the government through this fall’s election campaign, in order to ensure dementia remains “top of mind for our politicians.”

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