For the interview: Viola Zoller, Embassy of Switzerland in Australia
Like most developed countries, Australia’s population is ageing due to both a declining birth-rate and an increasing expectancy of life. This results in proportionally fewer children (under 15 years of age) in the population and a proportionally larger increase in those aged 65 and over. Between 1995 and 2015, the proportion of the population aged 65 years and over increased from 11.9% to 15.0%. Yet, this group is projected to increase rapidly over the next decade, as the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will turn 65. Consequently, the number of Australians aged 65 and over is expected to grow to 6.2 million by 2042 – an increase of around 25% of the population. For Australians aged 85 and over, the growth is even faster, from around 300’000 in 2002 to 1.1 million by 2042.
Currently, there are more than 353,800 Australians living with dementia and this number is estimated to increase to over 900,000 by 2050. While associated with increasing age, dementia is not a normal part of ageing. It is however, the single greatest cause of disability in older Australians (over the age of 65 years) and the leading cause of disability burden overall. However, while dementia is predominantly a disease associated with old age, it is estimated that approximately 25,100 of Australians are living with Younger Onset Dementia (i.e. a diagnosis of dementia under the age of 65, with people as young as 30 being diagnosed with Younger Onset Dementia).
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe more than 100 different disease aetiologies which cause a progressive decline in a person’s cognitive function, behaviour and ability to perform every day activities. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for approximately two-third of cases and which causes a gradual decline in cognitive abilities, starting with memory loss.
Dementia is a major health problem in Australia with profound consequences, affecting not only the quality of life of the person living with dementia but also that of their family and friends. On 10 August 2012, the Australian Government recognised dementia as the 9th National Health Priority Area. Although the form and severity of symptoms vary with the type of dementia, there are common patterns in the course of the disease: In the early stages, close family and friends may notice symptoms such as memory loss and difficulties with finding familiar words. In the mid-stages, familiar tasks like shopping or driving may become challenging. In the latter stages, difficulties extend to basic or core activities of daily living including eating, bathing and dressing. Eventually, people with dementia become dependent on carers. It is estimated that 1.2 million Australians are currently caring for someone with dementia – either in aged care facilities or at home. By 2029, Australia will have a significant shortage of more than 150,000 paid and unpaid carers for people living with dementia, highlighting the urgent need for carers specifically trained to care for a person with dementia.
This is exactly the topic Dr Moyra Mortby – a Swiss researcher currently engaged with the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia. Dr Mortby is one 76 early career researchers from around Australia to have been awarded an NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellowship in 2015. This fellowship funds a four year project (BPSD-CARE) which is aimed at reducing the prevalence of behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) and medication used to manage BPSD in Australian residential aged care facilities. BPSD are common in dementia, with over 90% of Australian aged care residents exhibit clinically significant BPSD. Physical aggression, agitation and disinhibition, especially when severe, are difficult to manage and can put patients, carers and other residents at risk. As part of this fellowship, Dr Mortby has received over AUD 600’000 (~CHF 430’000) from the Federal Government’s fund for this program which will equip residential aged care staff with specialised training and skills needed to provide care proactively for all residents with BPSD and improve quality of life for residents, carers and relatives in Australia. Outcomes from this project will help inform the aged and healthcare systems to deal more effectively and efficiently with the rising number of individuals with dementia and BPSD.
Dr Moyra Mortby
Dr Moyra Mortby is an NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellow at the Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing (CRAHW), The Australian National University. She was awarded her PhD with Laudatio Magna Cum Laude from the University of Zurich, Switzerland for her research on apathy and depression in Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, and completed her MSc in Research Methods in Psychology and BSc in Criminology and Psychology both at Keele University, UK.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics – 3101.0 – Australian Demographic Statistics, June 2015: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/3101.0Feature%20Article2Jun%202015?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3101.0&issue=Jun%202015&num=&view=
 Australian Government: The Treasury – Australia’s Demographic Challenges: http://demographics.treasury.gov.au/content/_download/australias_demographic_challenges/html/adc-04.asp
 Australian Government: Australian Institute for Health and Welfare – National Health priority areas: http://www.aihw.gov.au/national-health-priority-areas/
 Alzheimer’s Australia – Key facts and figures 2016: https://wa.fightdementia.org.au/wa/research-and-publications/key-facts-and-statistics