Open Access Government examines some of the statistics around Italy’s ageing population, related health challenges, and policy action to address the issue
Italy is currently the country with the second highest number of older people – behind Germany. In 2013, it was estimated that more than 12 million elderly people were living in Italy – accounting for 21.2% of the whole population. An increasingly ageing population in Italy, and across Europe, is leading to higher numbers of age-related chronic conditions, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In 2014, approximately 1 million people in Italy were affected by dementia. This included 600,000 individuals that were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. These figures are expected to increase over the coming years, as they are in other European countries, due to the rise of ageing populations.
In October 2014, a National Dementia Plan was approved in Italy. The Plan was formulated by the Italian Ministry of Health, in close cooperation with the regions, The National Institute of Health and the three major national associations of patients and carers. The four main objectives of the Plan are:
- Promote health and social care interventions and policies;
- Create and strengthen the network of services for dementia based on an integrated approach;
- Implement strategies for promoting appropriateness and quality of care; and,
- Improve the quality of life of people with dementia and their families by supporting empowerment and stigma reduction.
Italy was one of the first countries in Europe – or worldwide – to introduce ‘memory clinics’. These are centres that are specifically dedicated to diagnosis and management of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Around 500 Alzheimer’s Evaluation Units (UVA) were constituted by the Ministry of Health in 2000. These units in all of the Italian regions were designed to coordinate support for GPs in the complex process of care of individuals affected by dementia. With over 2,000 healthcare staff working in these units, including social workers, neurologists and nurses, they still play a central role in the network of healthcare services dedicated to dementia illnesses today in the country.
Italy’s place in the European dialogue
In 2014, Italy took up the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The theme of this presidency was health. Speaking about the upcoming six months of the Italian Presidency at the time, Minister of Health in Italy Beatrice Lorenzin commented: “Health is a priority for the Italian Presidency, as evidenced by the large number of expected events and goals that we have set ourselves in this field for the semester.
“Moreover, issues related to health and nature have a large impact, in terms of growth and overall development of the European Union, and thus form a central part of public policies. We intend to facilitate a constructive dialogue between Ministers and between them and the European institutions, with the aim of adding to the welfare, health and quality of life of our citizens as well as the European Union’s competitiveness.”
However, Italy is not the only country that is affected by this life-changing disease. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) held a ministerial conference, ‘Global Action against Dementia’, which was attended by health officials from all over the world. The aim of the conference was to highlight evidence relating to the global burden and impact of dementia, as well as encourage governments to take action to prevent the disease and improve care services.
Dementia is a global threat
WHO expects there to be 145 million cases of dementia worldwide in 2050, but it is still not seen as a priority by most countries. Speaking at the conference, Director-General of WHO, Margaret Chan, said: “In 2010, the worldwide cost of dementia was estimated at $604 billion per year. These costs are growing even faster than the prevalence of this disease.
“At the personal level, the costs of care are catastrophic, especially as they are often paid for out-of-pocket. Lifetime savings are lost. The wages of informal caregivers are sacrificed as meeting the needs of a person with advanced dementia is a full-time job.
“I can think of no other disease that has such a profound effect on loss of function, loss of independence, and the need for care. I can think of no other disease that places such a heavy burden on families, communities, and societies. I can think of no other disease where innovation, including breakthrough discoveries to develop a cure, is so badly needed.”
Dementia is a global threat and not something that affects one country more than another. Speaking at the conference, UK Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt said: “…what we need to do today is bring the world together to fight dementia. We have to do that because it is a global threat.”
National Strategy Plans such as the one that was announced in Italy in 2014 are key to fighting this global problem. Raising awareness of the burden of the disease and helping European governments to develop the effective support needed to help people with dementia live day to day is vital, as well as support for friends and families who are also affected by the disease.