Greater awareness could help overturn the belief that dementia is inevitable
Dementia Seven out of ten people still believe that dementia is caused by ageing. More education is vital if they are to realise it is caused by diseases that research can tackle.
Despite increasing media interest, government action and people speaking out about dementia, a majority of people still believe that dementia is an inevitable part of ageing.
Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer's Research UK says: "Although there is more public awareness of dementia among the public, we still have a battle to win in improving understanding of the condition and the diseases that drive it."
A recent Alzheimer’s Research UK poll conducted by YouGov found that only around 23% of people recognised that dementia is driven by diseases.
"Fatalism around dementia persists – a majority of people still believe dementia to be an inevitability of age, something that just happens, and there is no way of ducking the bullet," says Evans. "Outside of the enormous research challenge we face in tackling dementia, this enduring misconception about the nature of dementia is arguably the biggest challenge to overcome."
Public education is needed to get the message across that dementia is caused by physical disease processes in the brain, she says. "Unless we can move people’s perceptions away from ageing, nobody will believe that research can solve this problem."
She points out that a brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease – the leading cause of dementia – can differ in weight to a healthy brain by 140g, about the weight of an orange. "As startling as this fact might be, it reminds us that we’re dealing with a physical process, and one that research can delay, slow down or stop," Evans says. "If we can get this message across we believe it will drive a greater and more positive response to dementia and help stamp out the enduring fatalism that has mired it."
Public awareness has been improved by the media and government’s interest in dementia as a health challenge that risks spiralling out of control as the population ages. Dementia will affect over a million people in the UK in the coming years, and already has an economic impact greater than heart disease and cancer combined.
For a long time society turned a blind eye to dementia. Evans cites the words of the late Sir Terry Pratchett, who said it was “thousands of sad stories played out behind closed doors.”
Recently, however, it has been dragged out of the shadows. Dementia awareness has benefited from its increasing prominence in culture and art, with dementia represented sensitively in films like Still Alice, Iris and the Iron Lady, and well-known personalities have started talking about it
Nevertheless, there is widespread fear of dementia, often driven by fear of the unknown. Research shows that people over the age of 55 fear dementia more than any other condition, and unsurprisingly see solving dementia as our greatest medical challenge.
Education will help dispel fear as once people appreciate that it is disease, rather than simply age, that drives dementia, they will recognise that research can fight the problem.
"Previous successes in disease research can be achieved in dementia too," says Evans, citing the powerful role of research in solving seemingly intractable problems in treatment for cancer, heart disease, HIV and Ebola. Positive data from the recent solanezumab drug trial might hint that we’re moving into a new chapter for research where slowing or offsetting the disease might be achieved.
"It will help challenge people’s perception that nothing can be done, and this can only be positive," Evans says. "Charities, including Alzheimer’s Research UK, have a major role to play in communicating the progress and ambitions of research, challenging misconceptions and helping take the fight to dementia in the same way we have in other disease areas. People with dementia deserve no less."