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Tackling dementia with big data

Dementia is an umbrella term coined to embrace all the chronic brain disorders that progressively lead to brain damage and the deterioration of memory, functional capacity and social relations. Alzheimer’s disease, which is fatal, is the most common form of dementia, representing about 60-80% of cases, according to a 2009 study carried out by the non-governmental organisation Alzheimer Europe.

As people live longer the burden of dementia on individuals and healthcare systems is rising everywhere: about 35 million individuals worldwide suffer from dementia, and this number is likely to reach 115 million by 2050. The disease threatens to become a huge cost, particularly as there is no cure in sight: in 2010, the worldwide cost of dementia was estimated at US$604 billion (€560 billion).

But hope may be on the way, in the form of big data, according to Dementia Research and Care: Can Big Data help? This means collecting and analysing as much data as possible on potential patients before the symptoms show up: this includes biological and medical data, collected through electronic health records (EHRs), but also population-based data collected in digital forms. Cell phones, credit cards, and even the way people use social media can be useful for collecting lifestyle information, about smoking or the food people eat, for instance.

Dementia is very much a global challenge, and was discussed at the G8 summit on dementia in London in 2013. Clearly, better data sharing at an international level would help to address the challenge. Governments may share best practices, such as the national dementia plans established in Australia, the US and Switzerland. Protecting people’s privacy is a concern for governments wishing to share health-related data, the report says.

Anderson, G. and J. Oderkirk (eds.) (2015), Dementia Research and Care: Can Big Data Help?, OECD Publishing, Paris. 

©OECD Observer No 302, April 2015

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