Big Philanthropy's Latest Salvo in the High-Stakes War on Alzheimer's and Dementia

An estimated 48 million people worldwide have diseases of dementia such as Alzheimer's, and officials expect the total will more than triple by 2050 amid a graying of the world's population, especially in advanced countries. And while research shows glimmers of promise, current treatments are simply not very effective and new ones will probably still take years or decades to develop. 

The human and healthcare costs related to dementia are staggering, and they're set to soar, even as all developed nations grapple with high levels of public debt and a range of other costs associated with aging populations. Meanwhile, other disorders of the brain, including autism and mental illness, also are inflicting a growing human and financial toll on society. 

These high stakes help explain the unprecedented investments in brain-related research that philanthropists have been making in recent years, a stream of funding that we've been tracking closely. 

As we've reported, several health-focused giversincluding Paul Allen, Ted Stanley, and the Simons Foundationhave lately contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to brain research. A range of other philanthropists with more modest resources have also arrived in this space, some motivated by the heart-wrenching experience of watching loved ones cope with dementia or other brain disorders.

Atlantic Philanthropies, established by Irish-American billionaire Charles "Chuck" Feeney, has been focused on aging and dementia for two decades. And as the foundation winds down, aiming to complete its grantmaking in 2016, it's been making a series of big "culminating grants" aimed at advancing its core goals in coming years, after the foundation has closed. Now, in the largest single non-capital grant in the private foundation's history, Atlantic has pledged $177 million to Trinity College Dublin and the University of California, San Francisco, to establish an institute to study dementia and train new experts in the science, care-giving and public policy issues that surround it.

It makes sense that Atlantic's biggest grant yet is going to one of the top challenges facing civilization. In a statement about this commitment, foundation President and CEO Christopher G. Oechsli pointed to the high stakes involved:

"As our older populations grow, the impact of dementia is rising sharply, affecting individuals, families and nations at an unprecedented scale," wrote Oechsli. "As we make our final investments, we believe that dementia is a 21st century challenge that merits a major strategic investment."

The two universities will create the Global Brain Institute to train at least 600 fellows and scholars during the next 15 years. They won't be restricted to Trinity and UCSF, but will work around the world on research, care delivery, and public health advocacy relating to the health and well-being of older people.

"Our goal is to create a generation of leaders around the world who have the knowledge, skills, and drive to change both the practice of dementia care and the public health and societal forces that affect brain health," said Oechsli, in a press release. "By doing so, we hope to reduce dramatically the number of older people who develop this disease, which affects disproportionally those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and consumes not just the millions directly afflicted, but their families and caregivers as well."

Established in 1982, Atlantic has maintained a global view in its giving. In addition to aging, it focuses on children and youth, population and public health and human rights. Its "Ageing Programme" supports dementia-related care, research and public policy in Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and the US.