Dementia has become a political problem, with the Prime Minister intervening in the debates about how best to respond to the growing numbers of people with the condition. Special payments to GPs for spotting people with dementia have been quietly withdrawn, but there is no shortage of planning for new services for people with dementia, and of course for more investment in research.

The UK Government has published its plans for tackling dementia over the next Parliament, with a blueprint that will see it aim to boost dementia diagnosis rates, encourage research and make the UK the most dementia friendly society in the world by 2020.

The plan, published on Sunday 6th March, outlines a series of commitments including:

  • An aim for 10% of people with a dementia diagnosis to take part in research. Join Dementia Research – a scheme that matches people to suitable studies, run by the National Institute for Health Research in partnership with Alzheimer Scotland, Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society – will play a crucial role in helping to meet this target.

  • A pilot scheme to extend discussions of dementia risk reduction to the NHS Health Check for people over 40. Alzheimer’s Research UK, together with other organisations, will help to develop this pilot.

  • Moves to improve the quality of care for people with dementia.

Hilary Evans, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Since the first Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge was launched we’ve seen real progress in the fight against this devastating condition, and the beginnings of a social movement to rally people behind that fight. There is still much work to do, and Alzheimer’s Research UK welcomes this plan which signals a strong commitment to build on the achievements of recent years. We look forward to working with the Government to deliver action on research and help accelerate the development of much-needed new treatments, preventions and improvements in diagnosis.”

David Mayhew, Chairman of Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Prime Minister’s Dementia Envoy, added: “The UK is leading the way in the fight against dementia, and this blueprint once again shows real leadership from the UK Government in its efforts to tackle the condition. This plan lays out a clear direction for driving forward improved care, new treatments and greater awareness, and it will be important to link this strategy to international efforts if we are to have the greatest impact. We must push ahead with renewed urgency – the 850,000 people with dementia in the UK are counting on us.”

By contrast, a new study indicates that people who perceive dementia symptoms as an illness feel more negative than those who see it as an inevitable part of getting older. Researchers from the University of Exeter interviewed people who had recently been diagnosed with dementia, and who had symptoms such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating or carrying out daily tasks. The study, supported by the Economic Social Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research, and by the European Regional Development Fund, found that people who saw these symptoms as an illness reported lower mood than those who saw it simply as part of the aging process.

Professor Linda Clare, of the University of Exeter, who led the study, said: “There’s a big emphasis on earlier diagnosis of dementia, but our evidence raises the crucial question of the extent to which giving a diagnostic label really benefits people. Some people do want their difficulties acknowledged with a diagnosis, but our research shows that many others understand what is happening to them as part of a normal process of ageing. For this group, we may be better targeting support and information based on their symptoms or the type of everyday difficulties they are having, rather than focusing on giving a diagnostic label. This is a relatively small study and we must now conduct further work to confirm this to ensure we are providing the best support in this crucial area of health diagnosis, which has enormous implications for how people adjust and cope with these changes in later life.”

The study, involving collaborators from Bangor and Cardiff universities and published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, interviewed 64 people who had been given a diagnosis of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. They completed interviews and questionnaires and in each case a family member or close friend was also interviewed. Despite the diagnosis, nearly two thirds of this group did not consider themselves to be “ill”, but saw the condition as a sign of ageing.

Those who considered themselves to have an illness had lower mood and described more emotional consequences including anger, sadness, embarrassment and a loss of confidence.

The paper, “I Don’t Think Of It As An Illness”: Illness Representations in Mild to Moderate Dementia, is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, by Linda Clare, Catherine Quinn, Ian Rees Jones and Robert T Woods. Read the full article here.