Time catches up
Now the leading cause of death in England and Wales, dementia is an increasingly prevalent threat to public health.
While some treatments can help people to live with symptoms a little better, there are no treatments that slow or stop diseases like Alzheimer’s. Research, with a strong focus on drug discovery, is our only hope.
Dementia is the biggest cause of death for UK women and the second biggest for men. Furthermore, the age-standardised mortality rate for dementia and Alzheimer’s has more than doubled over the last five years for both males and females. In 2015, 61,686 people died of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which equates to 11.6% of all deaths. Among those aged 80 or over, dementia and Alzheimer’s accounted for 21.2% of fatalities among women and 13.7% of male deaths.
Dr Matthew Norton, Director of Policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Dementia is our greatest challenge, but we are unable to offer the 850,000 people living with dementia a treatment to slow down or cure the diseases underlying their condition.”
Feeling the strain
Dementia is not only a terrible disease for sufferers and their loved ones to face, it is also a massive strain on the economy.
According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, it costs the UK over £26bn each year, with this number expected to double over the next 25 years. Although investment in research is increasing, experts are concerned that it is not enough to keep up with intensifying demand.
“Dementia research has been historically underfunded, particularly compared to other disease areas, and we must bridge this gap if we are to defeat it,” stated Dr Norton.
“Recently there has been a greater focus on dementia, particularly with this Parliament committing to invest £300m in research. The £250m UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI) is also being established, bringing together world-leading expertise in biomedical, care, public health and translational dementia research. While we welcome this rise in support, the job is not done yet,” he added.
Hope for the future
Recent setbacks in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s – including Merck’s decision to halt the trial of experimental drug, verubecestat, and the late-stage failure of Eli Lilly’s solanezumab – have not diminished hope of a treatment for dementia.
“We must continue to push forward. It is now more important than ever to focus on a variety of approaches for drug development,” reflected Dr Norton.
The neuroscience area of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) is harnessing new technologies to build human models of neurological disease, and researchers are currently working on new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia.
Meanwhile, scientists at the UCL Dementia Research Centre, a hub for clinical research into various forms of dementia, are focussing on identifying and understanding the disease processes that cause dementia and how best to support people with dementia and their families.
Alzheimer’s Research UK is also supporting dementia research projects worth over £27 million in leading universities across the UK, including its pioneering DRI.
“As the UK DRI takes shape, we are confident that the expertise being brought together will move us closer to finding a life-changing treatment, which will have a huge impact on our society,” explained Dr Norton. “Success will require a step-change in commitment and ambition not just from government, but from charities and industry across the world. If we could delay onset of dementia by five years, this would result in 469,000 fewer people living with the condition by 2030.”
Reflections on a relative living with dementia
My Grandad was diagnosed with dementia 10 years ago at the age of 85.
It was obvious that things hadn’t been right for a while – his behaviour was becoming erratic and the once quiet, gentle Grandad I knew started having aggressive episodes. My Grandad is now in Stage 6 of dementia and no longer knows who I am. Stage 7 is ‘final’.
One of the scariest things about my Grandad’s dementia is trying to remember what he was like before. Sometimes I worry that I might forget. I do try to remind myself how lucky we are to have had the Grandad I once knew – the one who taught my Mum her love of literature and who would always sneak me a square of Cadbury’s chocolate from his secret stash.
It’s been extremely difficult for my entire family, because there’s nothing we can do; there’s no way to slow it down. But we don’t let it defeat us and try and keep everything in perspective. For example, we’re fortunate that my Grandad’s care home is hugely supportive and the staff are wonderful.
I think it’s important to ensure the right care is given to those suffering from dementia, but also that support is provided for loved ones. I hope that the government will increase their investment in finding a cure for dementia but, in the meantime, I would like to see more access to free care and services.
I’m feeling hopeful for the future – I’m here fighting with Grandad.
1. Dementia itself is not a disease – the word ‘dementia’ is an umbrella term for the symptoms caused by different diseases.
2. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, but other dementias include vascular and frontotemporal dementia.
3. Dementia has a bigger impact on women – half a million women in the UK are now living with dementia.
4. Research into the condition still only receives around 3% of the UK government’s medical research budget.
5. Recent research has discovered that factors linked to dementia include loneliness, high blood sugar and protein in urine.
Dementia research desperately needs volunteers. ‘Join dementia research’ is an initiative to help people with and without dementia register their interest. Go to joindementiaresearch.nihr.ac.uk