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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 10912

Ms GRIERSON (Newcastle) (18:35): I rise to speak on the motion on Dementia Awareness Week that appears on the Notice Paper under my name and I thank those colleagues who are speaking in support of this motion. Dementia is the greatest cause of disability in Australians aged 65 and over. Almost 280,000 Australians live with dementia today, and 1.2 million provide them with support and care. Every week, an estimated 1,600 new cases of dementia occur, with that expected to grow to 7,400 new cases per week by 2050, resulting in one million Australians living with dementia by 2050. This week, Dementia Awareness Week, and World Alzheimer’s Day, on 21 September, both support advocacy for the needs of those living with dementia, their families and their carers. The theme this year is 'Brain health: making the connections.'

Dementia demands our collective attention as a nation and as a government. Many challenges come with improved health and life expectancy outcomes, including rising health and care costs and declining workforce participation. The IMF indicates the life expectancy of Australians aged 60 is increasing at the rate of nine years every half-century. The life expectancy of 80-year-olds has risen by three years since the 1970s. As our population ages, so too grows the number of people in our nation living with dementia.

Dementia is not just one specific disease. It is a group of symptoms caused by disorders impacting the brain, affecting thinking, behaviour and an individual's ability to perform tasks and interactions that the rest of us take for granted. Brain function is affected enough to interfere with a person's normal functions, which may impact their family, social and working life. Dementia typically affects the elderly, with one in four people over 85 affected. However, as we all know, it is not exclusive to older people; dementia can affect people in their 40s or in their 50s, and we have met many such people here at Parliament House. If signs and symptoms are noticed, early diagnosis can mean early access to support, information and medication, if available. Signs of dementia can include progressive and frequent memory loss, confusion, personality change, apathy and withdrawal, and loss of ability to perform everyday tasks. Early diagnosis and the awareness of general practitioners are absolutely vital. While medication is available to alleviate associated symptoms, there is currently no cure.

In Newcastle and the Hunter Region, dementia rates are above average. An Access Economics report for Alzheimer’s Australia states that dementia will affect over three per cent of the Hunter-New England and North Coast population by 2050. The number is expected to increase in the Hunter New England Health area from almost 12,000 in 2010 to over 32,000 in 2050.

Earlier this year, I welcomed to Parliament House Dr Maggie Haertsch and Jean-Paul Bell of the Arts Health Institute, based in Newcastle. Their work focuses on stimulating the brain of dementia patients through social interaction—specifically, with humour and laughter. The parliamentary screening of their documentary The Smile Within, which featured on Compass, followed the delivery of humour intervention to a number of residents in aged-care facilities, part of their federally funded SMILE Study, which was highly successful.

I was very pleased when federal, state and territory health ministers announced this year that dementia would be made the ninth national health priority. Alzheimer’s Australia President Ita Buttrose said:

This decision marks a seismic shift in the attitudes of our policy makers …

It has always been front and centre, but it is good to have it designated as a national health priority. It will greatly assist in raising awareness, reducing stigma and creating a coordinated approach to dementia across the country. I congratulate Alzheimer’s Australia and their CEO, Glenn Rees, on their tireless campaigning and on their determined and reasoned voice in the national conversation.

Also I note that the Sunday Telegraph reported yesterday on new research indicating that exercise, music and socialising, activities that keep the brain active, can decrease the risk of developing dementia. That is the message behind the Your Brain Matters campaign, launched this week by Alzheimer’s Australia, which encourages people to participate in activities that continue to stimulate the mind to prevent dementia. I am really pleased to say that this program was the first in the world to gain public funding: funding from the federal government of $4 million over three years. Evidence states that, if we can reduce physical inactivity by five per cent every five years, we can reduce the prevalence of dementia by 11 per cent by 2051, or by around 100,000 people.

This week, the Parliamentary Friends of Dementia look forward to welcoming internationally renowned Alzheimer's expert Dr Serge Gauthier, of McGill University, Canada, who is visiting Australia as part of Dementia Awareness Week. As we continue the public discussion and shine a light on dementia, we are helping to reduce the stigma and moving towards increased rates of early intervention and improved care and support for those that need it most in our communities.