This guest blog was contributed by William Kloverod Griffiths, Policy and Projects Officer, at the think tank ResPublica.
The Prime Minister wants the UK to be ‘the best place in the world to undertake research into dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.’ The UK has indeed taken a leading role in initiatives among the G7 countries and the World Health Organisation, and the amount of money going into dementia research in the UK has recently doubled.
However, the total figure is still low when compared to funding for other conditions (such as cancer). There has also been a considerable focus on funding biomedical research ahead of research on how to best care for people with dementia. To be truly ‘best in the world’ we must see dementia not only through a biomedical lens but as a much wider issue which draws in all sections of society.
Although research into both cure and prevention of dementia is important, it’s also essential to emphasise research of better care strategies, practises and support of those with dementia — as well as their carers. 850,000 people in the UK presently live with dementia, and this number is expected to rise to 1,000,000 by 2025 and double to 2,000,000 by 2050.
These figures suggest that the number of people directly or indirectly affected by dementia will increase dramatically in the coming years. As a result of this, the human consequences of those living with the condition, and their carers, must become the subject of a great deal more study and action.
We must focus on finding appropriate methods in which to care for people with dementia. As few as 36,000 of the 180,000 people with dementia prescribed with antipsychotics receive any benefit from them; additionally, it is estimated that inappropriate prescribing leads to upwards of 1,800 deaths a year. As a great deal of this medication is given to people in care homes, the staff should have training in detecting dementia, depression and other conditions.
GPs in care homes need to identify older people who are in need of additional support and communicate this to care homes’ support staff. Interventions focused on person-centered approaches and evidence-based psychological interventions are significantly better than simply providing antipsychotic medication and like treatments.
Research should be done on identifying and evaluating the care homes that do this well and those where the staff lack the knowledge of appropriate dementia interventions.
The public’s understanding of dementia is also limited, and a concerted effort is needed to raise awareness and nationwide understanding of dementia. A recent poll conducted for Alzheimer’s Research UK found that three quarters of people believe that dementia is an inevitable part of the ageing process.
Only 25 per cent believe that lifestyle changes could make a difference in the chance of developing dementia. This contrasts with 83 per cent who believe changes made to the way they live can make a difference in developing diabetes and 82 per cent for heart disease, luckily the same changes are thought to impact on dementia.
People must be made more aware of the factors influencing the likelihood of developing dementia: a balanced diet, doing regular exercise, not smoking, not drinking to access, and keeping control of both cholesterol and weight are all measures that lower the risk of developing dementia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these factors influence other health problems such as obesity, heart conditions, as well as various forms of cancer and stroke. Therefore, interventions from government, such as the Change for Life scheme, should highlight the risk that sedentary lifestyles pose in developing dementia.
Lastly, there exists a broader problem of a lack of parity in treatment for those with dementia and those with other conditions. For example, a person treated for cancer receives free services for their NHS treatment, while a person with dementia where treatment is rarely appropriate or available, must rely instead on social care and if they have more than £24,000 in assets they will have to contribute to the cost of this care themselves.
Such a difference highlights the lack of understanding of dementia and how we ought to treat those with the condition. Dementia must not be considered as an inevitable part of the ageing process; accordingly, it demands to be treated with the same seriousness appropriated to other health conditions.
It is encouraging to see the way that the government has begun to give attention to the growing challenge of dementia. However, even with increased funding for biomedical research, there still needs to be a focus on delivering high quality care to those currently living with the condition.
This can be achieved by further educating the workforce in care homes, raising public awareness of dementia — its causes and effects — and by increasing the esteem of dementia care in the UK. Only then can the UK ‘lead the fight against dementia’.