The age distribution of the population in Germany – and in many other countries – is set to change fundamentally in the coming decades. The number of young people is falling, while that of older people is growing. As a result of this “demographic shift,” the frequency of dementia will continue to rise, because the risk of dementia increases with age. In 2018, there were an estimated 1.6 million people in Germany suffering from dementia. By 2050, their number could foreseeably grow to approximately 2.8 million1). The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks dementia among the ten leading causes of death worldwide2).
Because dementia is so widespread, it is one of the most common diseases. Dealing with this mental decline is a major challenge for society and a strain on many families, because relatives are usually the ones who care for people with dementia3). The costs are also enormous: In 2016, they amounted to some 73 billion euros for Germany, according to calculations by the DZNE, and the trend is rising4).The crux of the problem is that there are currently no therapies that could stop nerve cells from dying or even slow down the process. This applies not only to the various types of dementia – including Alzheimer’s – but also to other brain diseases such as Parkinson’s. At the same time, research suggests that the stage for healthy aging is set many years or even decades earlier in a person’s life. According to studies, around 40 percent of cases of dementia worldwide could be prevented – through lifestyle habits and medical action that take risk factors into account5). The potential of prevention (precaution) is enormous and is far from being fully utilized.
In light of the current situation, the DZNE was founded in 2009 as a member of the Helmholtz Association and the first member of the German Centers for Health Research (German Coeliac Society, DZG). Today, it consists of ten sites – Berlin, Bonn, Dresden, Göttingen, Magdeburg, Munich, Rostock/Greifswald, Tübingen, Ulm and Witten – and consequently pools expertise distributed nationwide within a single research institute. More than 1,100 experts are working to understand what causes diseases of the brain and nervous system and to find new approaches for effective prevention, therapy, and patient care. Worldwide, the DZNE is one of the largest research institutes dealing with this topic. It is sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and by the federal states in which the DZNE sites are located**).
Dwindling nerve cells
A common characteristic of the diseases researched by the DZNE is “neurodegeneration”: a pathological process that damages the nerve cells and causes them to die. Depending on which area of the nervous system is affected, neurodegeneration can lead to dementia, trigger movement disorders, or massively impair health in other ways. Examples include Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, childhood dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinocerebellar ataxia, and age-related macular degeneration.
For practical applications
We are driven by the desire to prevent neurodegenerative diseases and to significantly improve the quality of life of those affected. The DZNE therefore dedicates it efforts towards all aspects of neurodegenerative diseases – from biological mechanisms to personal care and patient care. In order to cover this wide range of issues, we pursue an interdisciplinary scientific strategy that includes several interlinked research areas. The scientists at the DZNE work together across the various disciplines and sites, so that new findings can be applied rapidly. Such efforts to build a bridge between science and practical application are called “translation,” and in doing this, DZNE cooperates with universities, university hospitals, research institutes and innovative companies – both in Germany and worldwide.
1) Dementia in Europe Yearbook 2019, Alzheimer Europe (2020) / Die Häufigkeit von Demenzerkrankungen, Deutsche Alzheimer Gesellschaft (2020)
2)The top 10 causes of death, WHO (2020)
3) Demenz-Report, Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung (2011) / Deutsche Alzheimer Gesellschaft
4) Ökonomische und gesellschaftliche Herausforderungen der Demenz in Deutschland – Eine Metaanalyse, Bernhard Michalowsky et al., Bundesgesundheitsblatt (2019)
5)Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission (2020)