An ageing society demands we tackle toll of dementia

An ageing society demands we tackle toll of dementia

Published: 9th January 2014

DEMENTIA services need to be addressed now. According to the Office for National Statistics, by 2030 the number of people entitled to draw a pension will be 15.6 million, of whom more than three million will be over 85.  Society has done much to prolong lives through a focus on helping ageing bodies and faulty organs, but for too long help for the brain has not kept pace with that for the rest of the body.

Aside from the economic argument, the more pressing issue for me is that of compassion, care and support. When my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia 25 years ago, little support or information was available for carers. Painfully aware that the last two years of her life were spent with little memory or recognition of family members, I now wish that she could have received an earlier diagnosis, so that we could have found professional help much earlier.

To put the problem that we face in context, I will give some statistics from the Alzheimer’s Society. One in three people over 65 will die with dementia. Two thirds of care home residents have some form of dementia. There are 600,000 family carers of people with dementia. It is estimated that a quarter of hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia. The most poignant statistic for me is that dementia is now the most feared health condition among people aged over 55.

It is obvious that dementia is on the radar of an ageing society. However, given the emotional toll of dementia and its prevalence at the end of life, I was horrified to hear that only 48 per cent of people who live with dementia receive a formal diagnosis, meaning that many people are denied the care and support that they and their loved ones need. Before the National Dementia Strategy for England was introduced in 2009, the rate was 33 per cent. If further proof were needed that dementia care and services need to be improved as soon as possible, those awful diagnosis rates should be enough to show that something needs to change.

To continue making improvements along the current trajectory, it is crucial that the national strategy for England is updated from the 2009 version.

That strategy identified 17 key objectives for the NHS and social services aimed at improving the commissioning of dementia services, the quality of care delivered in hospitals and care homes, developing a clear picture of research and evidence needs, and providing support for 

Secondly, in spite of the obvious benefits of the National Strategy, so far the Government have made no plans to renew it. I welcome the Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia, which is ambitious in its plans and places a welcome political spotlight on the issue.

However, that challenge alone does not provide the breadth of detail needed to guide health and social care services to make improvements, and neither does it carry enough accountability measures, which a national strategy would do.

A new National Dementia Strategy, with guidance for commissioners of health and social care, GPs, hospital trusts, care homes, and others, must be published before the current strategy expires in April this year.

It does not seem to be a new trend of coalition Government not to renew national strategies, because in 2011, new national strategies for cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease were published, and one for hearing loss is due.

Our international partners, many of which attended the G8 summit in December, have ambitious long-term plans. In the US, for example, President Obama published a dementia strategy that runs until 2025, well beyond his own term as President. France has recently published its fourth dementia strategy.

The economic case for having a clear directive for dementia is overwhelming. Dementia costs the UK £23 bn a year, which is more than cancer, stroke or heart disease, yet the annual research spend into dementia is about £51m, rising to £66m in 2015. That compares with £521m spent on cancer.

The ambition announced at the recent G8 summit to double the spend on research in the UK by 2025 is an excellent step forward, but a new National Dementia Strategy that covers all aspects of dementia, including research into prevention and finding a cure, will ensure that the momentum gained from the good work undertaken by the coalition Government will be turned into improvements for people affected by dementia.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that money be taken from the other crucial health causes I have mentioned; I wish merely to illustrate the numbers involved.