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Neuroscience Research Australia chief executive officer and professor at the University of New South Wales School of Medicine Peter Schofield, and Alzheimer's New Zealand Charitable Trust chairwoman and Alzheimer's Disease International vice-chairwoman Wendy Fleming said the world's growing elderly population meant there was an increasing number of people affected by neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and stroke.
At a public seminar titled ''Dementia - The epidemic is here'', at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery this week, Mrs Fleming said the greatest problem was research into dementia was woefully underfunded.
''The social and economic costs are huge, and most governments around the world are not prepared.
''They are just starting to wake up to the problem.''
In New Zealand alone, 48,000 people were diagnosed with dementia in 2011, and the number was expected to triple to 147,500 by 2050.
Statistics showed the dementia epidemic was here, and it was only going to grow.
Prof Schofield agreed.
''If we don't do something about this, we've got a real problem because we have an ageing society, and the biggest factor is dementia.''
He told the Otago Daily Times researchers working on the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer's Network Study (Dian) had found a way to detect the presence of Alzheimer's in those who are genetically pre-disposed to the disease.
The breakthrough would enable doctors to make earlier diagnoses of patients who will develop Alzheimer's later in life, and researchers were now working on a drug trial to try to prevent the disease, he said.
''A lot of drugs have failed because they are being used on people who are already suffering from dementia.
''We want to trial it on people who show early bio-markers, in the hope of preventing the disease before it gets established.''
If it was found to work on those with bio-markers, it could be used to treat people with Alzheimer's from the general population, he said.
''Dian has given us a new look on the problem and allowed us to do a lot or things we haven't been able to do.''
Mrs Fleming said a cure had not been found, so it was important to make sure those with dementia had access to a high quality of care that met their needs now.
''I'm hoping that some day, someone will come up with a cure.''