In 2017, around 225,000 people will be diagnosed with dementia – now the leading cause of death in Britain. 60,000 will die of the disease – and it will be a contributing factor in the deaths of many more. This debilitating illness is still without a cure and experts are now saying we need to change our approach.
Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Health Chris Whitty says dementia is “one of the biggest challenges to our society and the NHS”. To date, even the most promising drugs which gave us hope in the early stages of testing (Solanezumab and LMTX) have failed when trialled on a larger scale.
Scientists believe that we now need to adjust and accept dementia as part of our future, helping those suffering from the disease to integrate into the community rather than live on the fringes of our society.
Strangely, as our healthcare advances, the problem of dementia will grow. The last few decades have been spent fighting cancer and heart disease, and consequently more of us will survive into old age. It is during the later years of life that we are at the greatest risk of developing dementia and in particular, Alzheimer’s – which affects around two-thirds of sufferers.
However, the proportion of funding allocated to finding a cure for dementia pales into insignificance compared with that give to cancer research. Despite being Britain’s biggest killer, there is just one scientist working on dementia for every six working on cancer, and funding for research into the condition is about two thirds of the funding for heart disease research.
In financial terms, dementia costs our economy about £26 billion annually. Although the Government have provided some funding in the shape of a £250 million research institution, its lead scientist Bart de Strooper does not expect a cure any time soon. Instead, he believes there may be a “flickering of hope” over the next few years, after which it will be “up to the politicians where we go next”.
Professor de Strooper thinks we need to look at treating dementia in the same way that we treat cancer. Cancer is, he explains, “a combination of different disorders which have some commonality. There are some which are curable and some where we cannot do anything. There are others where the treatment has improved a lot. That’s also the problem with dementia.”
Rather than curing dementia at least in the short to medium term, prevention is likely to be a key way of fighting the condition. Studies indicate that those who eat healthily, exercise, avoid smoking and keep mentally active can reduce their risk of developing dementia, or delay its onset.
Head of the Alzheimer’s Society Jeremy Hughes believes that society also needs to adapt. For example, he points to the fact that dementia sufferers often end up in a nursing home, not because they need to be there but because community care has failed them. Other organisations need to adapt too – from supermarkets making adjustments allowing them to assist dementia suffers, to employers adjusting so that sufferers can continue working as long as possible. Mr Hughes explains: “It’s a whole-society activity, and we can all play a part.”
What you can do
Loss of mental capacity can affect anyone at any age. Make sure you have both types of Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) in place which allows you to nominate someone to make decisions (financial and health/care) for you, should you be unable to do so yourself. If you have elderly relatives who still have mental capacity, ensure they also have this important document. Find out more about LPAs.
You cannot make a Will if you lose mental capacity. Do this while you are still fit and healthy. Find out more about Wills.
If you or an elderly relative have been diagnosed with dementia, it doesn’t mean you/they are immediately excluded from making an LPA or a Will. Dementia is progressive and in the early stages, sufferers will usually be capable of making decisions for themselves. Speak to our Later Life Planning team to find out more.
If someone you know has lost mental capacity, you can apply for a Deputyship Order to help manage their affairs.