Atlantic Philanthropies is to give €138 million – its largest grant to date – to Trinity College Dublin and University of California San Francisco to help tackle the looming dementia epidemic. Almost 50,000 people are living with dementia in Ireland, a number which is projected to double every 20 years if there is no effective intervention.
The new initiative will involve training hundreds of health professionals to carry out dementia research, deliver healthcare and change policies and practices around treatment of the disease. Details are due to be formally announced later today at an event attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin Ian Robertson said dementia amounted to a “public health emergency” comparable to the Aids epidemic of the 1980s.
“That led to a big social movement which required all sorts of social advocacy, political will and biomedical research which resulted in Aids becoming a largely treatable condition. “Now we face an even greater problem with dementia,” he added. “There are 48 million people with the disease. That’s set to double every 20 years – and we don’t have any treatment for it.”
The Trinity team will be headed by Prof Robertson and by Prof Brian Lawlor, who specialises in old-age psychiatry.
Latest research indicates that up to 30 per cent of new dementia cases may be preventable through changes in diet, exercise, mental stimulation and tackling risk factors such as diabetes and heart disease. Prof Robertson said a new “global brain health institute” would accelerate the application of science in this area, as well as drawing in additional funding for new research.
In all, some 600 health professionals, or “fellows”, will be trained over the next 15 years to help change policies and practices in the field. It is hoped they will then return to their home countries to become leaders in developing dementia-related healthcare programmes.
A separate “scholars programme” will focus on training journalists, managers and filmmakers to teach others about the preventable causes of cognitive impairment. Training for both programmes will be multi-disciplinary, including geriatrics, cognitive neuroscience, public policy, health economics, health law and communications.
Christopher Oechsli, Atlantic Philanthropies president and chief executive, said: "Our goal is to create a generation of leaders around the world who have the knowledge, skills and drive to change both the practice of dementia care and the public health and societal forces that affect brain health."
Atlantic Philanthropies is due to wind down its operations by the end of the decade following three decades of grant-making around the world. The organisation, founded by billionaire Chuck Feeney, has granted more than $6 billion worldwide, with about €1.25 billion going to projects in the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Dr Patrick Prendergast, president and provost of Trinity said the latest announcement would bring benefits to people around the world, create jobs in Ireland and deepen expertise in neuroscience and ageing.
“The sum donated is huge but so, too, is the problem we are trying to solve. There is hardly a family anywhere that has not experienced dementia in some shape or form,” he said.
Prof Bruce Miller of University of California San Franciso said the scale of funding and training in the dementia initiative could help change the course of this disease and protect vulnerable people around the world.
“We want to train leaders, not just in medicine and public policy, but also social science, journalism, law, business and the arts, who can teach others about the preventable causes of cognitive impairment, which disproportionately affect the poor,” he said.