Scientists are on target to develop a cure for dementia within the next 10 years, Alistair Burns, NHS England’s national clinical director for dementia has said.
He says he is confident there will be a cure for dementia, or at least a drug that will significantly slow down its progression, by 2025.
Professor Burns, 56, who was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s honours list, claims that advances in treatment will eventually catch up with those made in cancer care.
More people are already being diagnosed with the illness, with an extra 10,000 people every month being added to the dementia register.
“I think in my generation, and the aspiration is that by 2020 or 2025, we will find a treatment for dementia, or at least the commonest cause of dementia, which is Alzheimer’s disease, or something that will significantly slow down the progression of the illness,” Professor Burns said.
“Dementia is a progressive illness, so something that slows down the progression, even though in the public’s imagination it might not be a cure, in other words be able to bring people back to exactly where they were before, but something that slows down the progression, or halts the progression, would be very important indeed.”
In December, David Cameron said Britain would lead the search for a cure for dementia, something he described as “one of the greatest enemies of humanity.”
In the Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne pledged at least £15 million towards a new fund focussed on boosting investment into dementia research.
Professor Burns praised the Government for the work it has done, adding: “If I look back at the advances that have been made during the time that I have been interested in dementia, and in particularly the last few years and the Prime Minister’s support for dementia and research in general, it has really been extraordinarily helpful at getting people interested in the subject.
“I would say in confidence that we are on target to develop something that will cure or significantly slow down dementia in the next 10 years, but these things are notoriously hard to predict.”
He added: “We are really at the beginning of the journey on dementia in terms of research and although there have been huge strides, it is going to take a little while to catch up with the interest and developments there have been with cancer.”
Professor Burns said the interest in dementia shown by politicians and the public is feeding through into research, which will assist with any breakthrough.
“One of the privileges of my job is to go around the country talking about dementia and you can now fill rooms with people interested in dementia,” he said.
“Five years ago, there wasn’t that degree of interest. You would often have trouble getting people interested and now everyone is interested.
“That feeds through to research and so I think the future is bright and there is a lot to be enthusiastic about but we aren’t quite there yet.”
The number of people being diagnosed with dementia has been steadily rising and as of December an estimated 394,000 people had been added to the dementia register, up from 250,000 in 2009.
Since March the numbers have jumped from 349,000 with an extra 10,000 people a month now being added to the dementia register.
Professor Burns said more can still be done to tackle the stigma around dementia to help drive up diagnosis rates, which has in the past meant that only half of sufferers have a formal diagnosis.
“People talk about the stigma of dementia and I have even heard people even refer to it as the ‘d’ word in the same way they used to talk about cancer as the ‘c’ word,” he said.
“In the public’s mind there is a great fear about it like there was with cancer and one of the misconceptions about it is that, for example, if I get a diagnosis of dementia someone will take my driving licence away.
“So I think the first thing that needs to be done to improve diagnosis is to tackle the stigma and the fear that people have about it.”
He added: “For people over the age of 50, dementia is the most feared illness. Much more feared than cancer or heart disease. I think that stems from peoples’ fear of losing their independence and having to depend on others.
“The second is the fear that nothing can be done, there is no pill to cure, so what is the point of diagnosis and so greater awareness is very important.
“Many clinicians share the view that because there isn’t a pill, because there isn’t one thing we can do, there is the feeling that perhaps there is no point looking for a diagnosis.
“So part of the work we are doing in NHS England working with colleagues such as the royal colleges and the British Medical Association is to dispel the myth that there isn’t anything you can do.
“I think that is the beginnings of us trying to understand why we are not diagnosing as many people as we could.
“Having said that I think this is an international problem, so it is not as if there are other countries diagnosing huge numbers of people.
“In fact the UK, as far as we know, does pretty well in terms of the numbers who are diagnosed and certainly the concentration and emphasis on diagnosis has been extremely helpful.”
Read the latest blog by Professor Alistair Burns: GPs have a vital care home dementia role.