With the number of high-profile deaths involving dementia increasing amongst celebrities and public figures, the very real eventuality of dementia has become a prominent topic of public discourse in the last decade. For the over 65 cohort in the UK, 4% of the group had active dementia at the end of December 2020, with many more expected to be affected who withhold coming forward for treatment. By 2024, it’s expected over a million people will be suffering from dementia, meaning there is a high likelihood you or someone you know has or will be affected by this disease within a lifetime. Simply put, dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning, usually associated – but not always – with normal aging and senescence. Dementia becomes a problem beyond standard ‘forgetfulness’ when there is such cognitive interference that it drastically affects thinking, remembering, reasoning and other functions to the point where it causes a detriment to their life. Beyond this, dementia is a significant healthcare burden and can be one of the most difficult experiences for the family or friends around the affected person to deal with. The question remains – where are we with research, treatment and discourse?
Boris Johnson this week launched an ambitious dementia mission, named after the lifetime entertainer Dame Barbara Windsor who was deeply affected by dementia before her death at the end of 2020. Her death thrust dementia into the public arena even more than before, with her public admissions of struggling with the condition, and the discontinuation of her role on Eastenders as the perennial barwoman Peggy Mitchell. Speaking on 14th August, Boris Johnson launched a campaign to double research funding into dementia by £160 million a year by 2024. Johnson has also appointed a taskforce to fast-track research into the condition, much akin to the way vaccine taskforce teams were assembled to coordinate a nationwide response to coronavirus. Along with the initiative, Johnson also called for volunteers to sign up to clinical trials involving pharmaceutical treatments and other valuable research which often uses active dementia patients to easily identify what works and what doesn’t.
40% of dementia cases are preventable with early intervention, but the causes and confounding factors are poorly understood, but many dementia cases involve degradation of the pre frontal cortex (involved in cognition, functioning, reasoning) by amyloid plaques. Some of the treatments available include medicine to reduce the progression of dementia, but even these treatments carry side effects such as drowsiness and poor coordination, risking falls in the elderly. The most common form of dementia that will be familiar to everyone is Alzheimer’s disease. However, there is vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, mixed dementia and even young-onset dementia, a condition that devastates young people who often progress to have severe symptoms before they reach their 50th birthday. Although all dementia conditions are different, there’s often a common set of symptoms most people experience, not limited to;
Forgetting names, words, events, significant dates and past conversations
Repeating conversations or sentences
Struggling with depth perception and judging distance
Issues with concentration and planning
As the disease progresses in the elderly, they will need more help completing basic tasks and often become more frail, particularly when forgetting to eat, bathe or sleep properly. Speaking of the improvements in care and the changes which will finally be made, Hilary Evans, Chief Executive at Alzheimer’s Research UK said; “We’re delighted the Government has recommitted to doubling dementia research funding, and that our call for a Dementia Medicines Taskforce to speed up the development of new treatments has been heard. This marks an important step towards finding life-changing treatments for dementia and supporting our NHS to be able to deliver these new medicines to the people who need them when they become available. We are incredibly grateful to our tireless supporters who have helped keep dementia on the political agenda over the past three years. Over 50,000 people joined us in contacting their MPs, signing petitions, and even writing personal letters to the Prime Minster himself.”