updated 9/21/2010 12:15:15 PM ET 2010-09-21T16:15:15

The global cost of dementia will likely exceed $604 billion this year, or 1 percent of the world's gross domestic product, a new report says.

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In a study issued on Tuesday, European researchers estimate about 35 million people have dementia worldwide. They said that figure is likely to double every 20 years, to nearly 66 million in 2030 and 115 million in 2050.

In the report scientists called the spread of dementia "an epidemic that is increasing its pace with the 'graying' of the population around the world." As people live longer, particularly in developed countries, they become more susceptible to developing dementia.

After age 65, the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, doubles every five years. At age 85, people have about a 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's.

"If dementia care were a country, it would be the world's 18th largest economy," the report said. "If it were a company, it would be the world's largest by annual revenue, exceeding Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobil."

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The report was based on data collected from countries worldwide, including estimates from developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

"Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are the single most significant health and social crisis of the 21st century," Daisy Acosta, chairman of the Alzheimer's Disease International, said in a statement. The organization published Tuesday's "World Alzheimer Report."

'Massive social issue'
Martin Prince, one of its co-authors and a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, urged countries to develop better treatment plans. "The care of people with dementia is not just a health issue, it is a massive social issue," he said.

Experts also said more research money was needed to match dementia's proportional impact on the population. They estimated a 15-fold increase in dementia funding was needed to put the disease on par with heart disease.

There are some treatments for patients with early dementia or cognitive problems, but there is no known cure for Alzheimer's.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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