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Australia must act now to combat dementia, which is set to become the 'major illness of the century', an expert has warned.

Glenn Rees, Executive Director of Alzheimers Australia, was reacting to figures released by Alzheimer's Illness International in September that show there will be 115.4 million people with the illness by 2050. 'Australia will be hit hard by this chronic health condition,' he told The Australian. 'Access Economics predicts that by 2050 there will be 7,400 new cases of dementia each week, and 1.3 million Australians will live with the illness.'

The current cost of dementia to Australia's economy is already rising, Glenn warned. 'It is estimated at about $5 billion a year, and projections indicate that the illness will become the third greatest source of health and residential aged care spending within two decades.'

Those responsible for health policy must give dementia a similar level of attention and resources allocated to cancer and heart illness, Glenn said. This includes dementia education and training for doctors, who should work closely with nurses. 'There is a need for the employment of practice nurses to better assess and maintain the active management of patients with dementia,' Glenn said.