Reducing the cost of dementia

Person tying up shoes.

Adobe Stock/Mladen

Adobe Stock/Mladen

Dementia is a costly syndrome.

It costs the person affected their memories and ability to perform everyday activities. It costs their friends and family a loved one. And it costs the community the loss of a capable and independent member of society.

Indeed, dementia is categorised as one of the costliest diseases worldwide – even more so than cancer or heart disease – because of its long-term requirement for the ongoing care of those affected and because of the sheer number of people living with the condition, around 50 million worldwide. In 2015, the total societal cost of dementia was estimated at US$818 billion, or 1.1 per cent of global gross domestic product. These figures are only set to increase.

The World Health Organization recognises dementia as a public health priority, particularly as no cure, or therapy to slow its progress, is currently available.

But what if dementia could be prevented?

UQ PhD economics candidate in the School of Economics and Centre for Business and Economics of Health, and 3MT finalist Sabrina Lenzen believes this may be possible.

“Current research shows that early clinical signs of dementia develop many years before any memory loss occurs,” she said.

“So, should we focus on preventing dementia at that early stage? That’s exactly what I am focusing on in my thesis.

“Through my research, I have proven that physical activity can improve people’s memory and cognitive function, and therefore may potentially prevent dementia. I even go one step further and show that this improved cognition could then reduce health care use and cost.”

Ms Lenzen came to this hypothesis after observing that she always felt more alert and was more productive immediately after exercising.

She thought that perhaps her experience was not unique and so decided to test her theory on a broader sample of the general population.

“When looking at statistics, I noticed that people who are physically active are less likely to develop dementia,” Ms Lenzen said.

“But then I asked myself is this because people who are physically active are generally more healthy and more educated, and therefore have higher income and can pay for better health care?”

Three people exercising.

Adobe Stock/Kzenon

Adobe Stock/Kzenon

Based on her data analysis looking at thousands of people aged 50 and above across Europe and the US and, using her economic model that corrects for many components – such as a person’s lifestyle, income, health conditions, age and sex – she showed that physical activity itself can increase people’s memory by around 12 per cent.

“This is before the onset of cognitive impairment and dementia and so is potentially a prevention,” Ms Lenzen said.

“People who are physically active spend on average two less nights a year in hospital, and especially in the older age group, around 15 per cent of that is due to improved cognition. This means we could save millions of dollars a year in healthcare costs just by encouraging people to become more active.”

Ms Lenzen is hoping that her research will help policymakers create incentives for people to become more physically active, to prevent dementia rather than just treating symptoms. She believes that so many more people would benefit from improved physical and mental power, let alone being free from the crippling effects of an insidious condition like dementia.

“And we might see more parks and recreational areas in the community for older people who don’t enjoy going to the gym.”

Overall, Ms Lenzen feels that we should be urging people to live a healthier lifestyle to prevent dementia, rather than trying to manage the condition through the healthcare system when it’s too late.

If you’d like to read more about Ms Lenzen’s research, see A dynamic microeconomic analysis of the impact of physical activity on cognition among older people or Health care use and out-of-pocket spending by persons with dementia differ between Europe and the United States.

Older walkers in a park.

Sabrina Lenzen is currently in the final stages of her PhD and works as an economist at the Centre for Policy Development. The 2020 winner of the UQ Faculty of Business, Economics and Law's Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, she has a passion for making a difference with her research, whether at a government level or in a more research-focused space. She much appreciates the support she has received from her two PhD supervisors and dementia paper co-authors, Professor Brenda Gannon and Dr Christiern Rose, from the UQ School of Economics and Centre for Business and Economics of Health.

Last updated: 31 May 2021

Sabrina Lenzen.

Sabrina Lenzen.

Sabrina Lenzen.