Dementia is a cruel disease that dilapidates not only patients but also their families. Its psychological, physical and financial impact is so severe that we often encounter tragic cases in which people affected by the illness commit suicide, mercy killing or even murder.
As Korea's societal aging progresses at one of the fastest paces in the world, the brain disease that destroys patients' memories and cognitive abilities is growing as a major social menace.
A set of figures shows how serious the situation is. The National Assembly Budget Office said recently that about 610,000, or 9.58 per cent, of people aged 65 or older are estimated to have been afflicted with dementia last year. The figure is forecast to rise to 840,000 in 2020 and 2.17 million in 2050. In proportion to the total population, the rate is forecast to increase to 5.6 per cent in 2050 from 1.1 per cent in 2012.
This will cost a lot: Government figures predict that dementia will cost the nation 11.7 trillion won in 2013, 15.2 trillion won in 2020 and 43.2 trillion won in 2050, which will account for 1.5 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.
Figures at the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service show that medical expenses for dementia patients aged 65 or older among those covered by insurance reached 646.2 billion won last year. This is far more than those for patients of cataract, pneumonia and cerebral infarctions, whose respective numbers are greater than that of dementia patients. Each patient needed an average of nearly 20 million won.
Besides these huge economic costs, there is the unbearable pain and suffering the patients and their family members have to go through. What differentiates the disease from other illnesses is that its patients require around-the-clock care. About 4,000 dementia patients went missing in 2012, 11 a day, according to the police. This shows how easily the disease can ruin a family.
With the number of patients increasing steadily, dementia is no longer a family matter, but a major social issue that should be tackled by society and the state.
This is all the more urgent because aging in Korean society is accelerating. A recent report showed that, over the last four decades, Korea's elderly population has grown fourfold and that the proportion of elderly people in the country is forecast to exceed 20 per cent by 2026.
This is truly alarming. According to a Seoul National University Hospital report, seniors' chance of getting dementia doubles every 5.8 years ― that is ― a 70.8-year-old is twice as likely to come down with the disease as someone aged 65.
Experts suggest that early diagnosis, more nursing homes, reduction of alcohol consumption and encouraging workouts are essential to prevent the disease from becoming a major threat to society. The government and the National Assembly should pay heed to this.