Dementia Alone Cannot Dominate Ageing Debate

The Prime Minister’s latest strategy, picked up extensively in the news media, is a drive aimed at pharmaceutical companies to focus their efforts on dementia drugs with a hope that, by 2025, significant inroads can be made. There is a plan to build on G8 commitments and further rally all the world’s major powers around the need and importance of this work.  With neither of these things do we disagree – but there is much, much more to this problem.

Dementia does not equal Ageing

Dementia is frequently treated in the news as an illness which is effectively analogous with ageing. That is wrong: it is not an inevitable consequence of age even though its incidence correlates to a high degree.  Neither is it not the only issue which accompanies ageing, which has a range of effects on our lives, as well as bodies.

The number of people in the UK aged 65+ is projected to rise by nearly 50% (48.7%) in the next 20 years to over 16 million, and they will make up a higher percentage of the population than they do today (22.4% by 2032, versus 17.2% today).  Consider this: just 1% of those over the age of 65 are likely to suffer from dementia, while 100% will experience other difficulties of ageing, such as declining general health and mobility.

Broader Ageing Research Required

More money absolutely does need to be put into dementia research. The question is where that research should focus, and what priority is placed on it relative to other aspects of ageing.

I would like to see as much focus, research and effort into understanding the causes of dementia , in pursuit of prevention, as well as pharmaceutical management of the outcomes. However, I believe we must additionally extend all kinds of gerontological research – and, if we understand how to manage the full breadth of aspects of ageing better, we may well directly improve our dementia management.

Dementia Home Care is Critical

Much of the recent news agenda around ageing has been overtaken by stories around residential care home practice and failings, and it has crept in to dominate much of the accompanying political debate around the Care Bill.   It is a worrying distraction – because there is simply no practical or economical way that residential care can be the dominant model going forward. Home care, in close alignment with health and community care, must and will become the main environment within which we help people manage the challenges of old age. That means that dementia care in the home will be vitally important.

The Bradford Dementia Group has made a number of important research contributions in the area of helping and caring for those living with dementia, and those who must support them.  I would like to see much more research of this kind, focused on caring for those with dementia who remain at home.    There needs to be recognition that caring for someone in a specialist care home environment is very different from care at home. The care skills and expertise required for good dementia home care are specialised, and all carers need better researched practical exercises and advice. They need help in shaping the home environment to facilitate the lives of those living with dementia.

This is the most important challenge that exists today – and it will continue long after drugs to alleviate the symptoms have been developed.  We must not let the focus on dementia distract us from the bigger challenge that awaits. We have a vast ageing population issue approaching which will create a tidal wave of pressures on our economy, our communities and our families.

I sincerely hope that there ARE huge steps forward in dementia drug treatments and, in particular, those drugs which can delay onset or minimise the symptoms of dementia for those who need it. However, the stark reality is that no drugs, no amount of righteous politicking, can hold back the tide of ageing health and welfare issues which faces Britain and many other countries.

Sources: Alzheimers UK and National population projections, Office for National Statistics, 2011

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