The cost of brain disorders in Europe soared to 798 billion euros last year, double the figure for 2005 and equating to 1,550 euros per capita, says a new report.
The bill will continue to rise as people live longer, and this represents "the number one economic challenge for European health care now and in the future," says the study, which was commissioned by the European Brain Council (EBC).
The authors, who acknowledge that their cost estimates are "very conservative,” call for a major increase in research funding and resources - and perhaps longer patents for drug treatments - to help tackle the issue.
The report examines the situation in 30 European countries covering 19 diagnostic groups. It puts the total number of mental and neurological conditions at well over 100, ranging from headaches, migraines and sleep disorders to strokes, Parkinson's disease, psychotic disorders and dementia.
Over one-third of Europe's 514 million population has been affected in some way, either suffering from a condition themselves or having aided or cared for those who are suffering, it says.
The "immense and expanding" cost of brain disorders is also substantially higher in Europe than other comparable disease areas such as cardiovascular disease - estimated by the European Heart Network at 192 billion euros in 2008 - or cancer - put at 150-250 billion euros a year, the study notes.
However, despite the overwhelming impact which brain disorders have on society and the fact that their costs far exceed those of cancer and cardiovascular disease, "research into the diagnosis, prevention and more effective treatment of such disorders has not been recognised as a top priority," says Jes Olesen, professor of neurology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
"This report indicates that brain research needs far more focus and to receive a considerable proportion of healthcare research spending," he adds.
In 2010, the direct healthcare costs of brain disorders - including doctor' visits, hospital care and drugs - constituted 24% of total European Union (EU) healthcare spending, while indirect costs - including loss of production due to work absences or enforced early retirement - added considerably to this. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that brain diseases cause 35% of the burden of all diseases in Europe.
The report acknowledges that there have been significant funding improvements at the European Commission level, but points out that these started from a very low level, with just 85 million euros spent in the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5 - the EU R&D programme) between 1998-2002. The last funding tranche in FP7 was 381 million euros, or just 0.05% of the estimated cost of brain disorders.
Moreover, the report says the pharmaceutical industry has begun to turn its back on brain disorder research, in the face of stricter regulation of central nervous system (CNS) drug treatments and disappointing financial returns. Here, the authors suggest that "political action could…include simplification of procedures, reducing bureaucracy or perhaps prolonging patents for drugs for brain diseases."
But without urgent action, the situation can only worsen, given the continuing rise in life expectancy in Europe, the authors warn. Because of the ageing population, degenerative disorders such as dementia, Parkinson's and stroke are particularly destined to become more common, but anxiety and mood disorders are also very prevalent in older populations, they add.