Research by the Alzheimer’s Society suggests that although there are currently 800,000 people in the UK with a diagnosis of dementia, this is still only 43% of all those who have the illness. The Alzheimer’s Society is calling for this to increase to two-thirds (66%).

At the G8 summit in December 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron and the G8 leaders pledged to boost research funding and find a cure or a treatment that changes the course of dementia by 2025.

This prompted more discussion about how to improve dementia services and prompted a debate about ‘timely’ dementia diagnosis.


Not an early dementia diagnosis, but a timely one


“A timely diagnosis means having access to a GP with the knowledge and training to know when to refer someone to a memory clinic, and having access to specialist help and advice when people with Alzheimer’s disease need it”, says Alison Cook from the Alzheimer’s Society. “Getting a diagnosis at the right time can give people the chance to access services like the charity’s dementia advisers, and plan things like care arrangements and power of attorney with their families and carers.”


Controversy over targets


Currently there are no treatments available for dementia that will slow down or stop the symptoms from getting worse. But there are financial incentives in the GP contract to encourage GPs to diagnose people with dementia, and in some areas GPs have been set a target to diagnose up to 50% of older people with dementia.

Setting targets in this way has never been done before. Doctors have argued that it “could lead to overtreatment, harm to patients, unnecessary expense, and diversion of precious resources away from other services, including support for people who are seeking help for a timely diagnosis of dementia or who have already been given a diagnosis.”

This is an argument the Alzheimer’s Society rejects. “It’s a strange argument to make – that people don’t have the right to know what’s wrong with them. No-one would make that argument about any other illness”, Alison Cook says.

Dr. Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, sympathises but warns that incentivising GPs “may do more harm than good.” For example the stigma that comes with the label can cause a loss of confidence and people feeling isolated and depressed.


Importance of research

"A timely diagnosis means having access to a GP with the knowledge and training to know when to refer someone to a memory clinic"

“There’s merit in the argument that if people can benefit from treatment then they should not be denied. But I would qualify that by saying drugs are currently limited, they only work for Alzheimer’s disease and not other dementias, and they may not work for very long. We have to be careful about promising too much. But this balance may change dramatically if we get new drugs.”

This is why the Government’s pledge, along with the research communities’ efforts to find new treatments to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, is more important than ever.