Dementia - everybody's problem
Dementia At the moment, there are an estimated 850,000 people in the UK1 living with dementia. To some, it may seem extraordinary that we have to estimate - that we don't have accurate figures of everyone suffering from a condition which can have such a profound impact on family as well as sufferers.
With dementia awareness week upon us, this week's headlines give us a clue as to at least part of the reason for this.
A new study by the Alzheimer's Society shows that more than half of people coming in to see their doctor about possible dementia have delayed seeking medical help for at least a year. Dementia isn't a condition that comes on overnight - it's usually insidious, starting with more frequent minor memory lapses and progressing over months or even years before it's impossible to hide. Memories for recent events are usually affected first, with more and more instances of misplaced keys or ovens left on. In the later stages, many people with dementia will lose at least some of their vocabulary, and won't be able to remember the names of everyday objects. But in the early stages at least, people with dementia are very good at covering up their shortcomings - and they may well be too proud, or too scared, to admit the problem even to themselves.
The Alzheimer's Society survey gave insights into why people delay seeking help:
- Many are simply terrified of losing their independence. One in five worries that their family and friends might desert them, and nearly half think people would believe they had 'gone mad'.
- 45% fear that they would be forced to stop driving straightaway
- 24% think they wouldn't even be allowed to go for a walk by themselves from the moment of diagnosis
- Nearly two thirds believe a diagnosis of dementia means that their life is over and the same number believe they would never be the same person again if they were diagnosed.
Of course, dementia can eventually result in enormous disability and complete dependence on others. But many people with dementia can live fulfilled and happy lives for years to come - with the right help and support. That's why this report is such a concern. Getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (the most common form of dementia) early may mean the option of medication which can slow down progression of the disease. It's estimated that over 1.5 million people in the UK, including people with dementia and their carers, would benefit from dementia treatments2. Even if drug treatment isn't an option, it allows services to be put in place to help sufferers stay safe and independent.
In my practice, I often find that carers struggle as much as their loved ones. There are currently about 700,000 people in the UK caring 'informally' (rather than professionally) for their loved ones2, and like people with dementia, they're getting older. Age UK has this week highlighted the army of over 400,000 over-80s who are providing this sort of care. All too often, I see them running themselves into the ground, desperate to keep going for the sake of their life partner despite their own faltering health. I've lost count of the number of times a crisis has been precipitated, not by sudden illness in someone with dementia but by their partner finding themself breaking under the strain. The current number of informal carers for people with dementia could increase to 1.7 million by 20503 - and that could lead to an awful lot more disasters. The Department of Health is looking into improving services for carers - but it needs to remain a priority for years to come.
"There are currently about 700,000 people in the UK caring 'informally' (rather than professionally) for their loved ones."
We're all getting older - and that stands for the population as a whole. The likelihood of getting dementia rises steeply with age, and that could lead to a huge burden for healthcare and social services in the future. None of us can guarantee we won't get dementia, no matter how perfectly healthy the lives we lead. But we can stack the odds in our favour. Staying active, eating a healthy diet, keeping alcohol intake to moderate levels and avoiding smoking can all help stave off dementia. We all want to live longer - but we need to take out insurance that those long lives are happy and healthy ones.
3 Department of Health (2015), Prime Minister's challenge on dementia 2020