Great strides are being made in dementia awareness

NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Dementia marks National Dementia Awareness Week by outlining the significant progress being made in this area of care:

This week gives us a great opportunity to raise the profile of dementia, to celebrate things that have been achieved and shed a light on areas where more work needs to be done.

The interest in dementia is attested to by the fact that some ten local radio stations requested an interview this week and there are some significant common threads to the areas under discussion.

A report by the Alzheimer’s Society showed that a significant number of people still put off coming forward for investigations for fear that a diagnosis of dementia is such a cataclysmic event that their lives are considered over. The perception of the negative stereotype of people with dementia is something which is a hard nut to crack and, like with cancer, may take many years to turn around.

The overwhelming message from professionals, people with a dementia diagnosis and their carers is that this view is misplaced and there are many things that can be done to support people with dementia and their carers under the rubric of ‘Living well with Dementia’. We live well with many other diseases so why not dementia?

The issue of prevention is usually raised in interviews with the inevitable question of what can be done to reduce ones individual risk of dementia – physical exercise, mental stimulation, maintaining social networks, looking after vascular risk factors, not smoking and drinking in moderation are the key simple messages, often best summarised as what is good for your heart is good for your head.

Reginal variation is another issue which peaks interest with inevitable comparisons between areas, variation in health care is not a surprise and examples of good practise often within one region abound.

In terms of progress in the last two or three years, three things are worthy of highlighting:

Firstly, the diagnosis rate has increased from approximately one-third to two-thirds. This is no mean feat and in practise it means that around 150,000 more people now have a formal diagnosis of dementia thus enabling them to access post diagnostic support. Dementia as a vehicle to secure high quality post diagnostic support is key.

Secondly, Awareness – we now have nearly 1.5million Dementia Friends, 158 dementia friendly communities, and around 600,000 NHS staff being given dementia training. We know that Dementia Friends training significantly increases people’s awareness of the disease, willingness to pledge to do things, and improved confidence in interacting with people who have dementia.

Thirdly, Research – The pledge to double research funding to £60million per year is being achieved, and the recent significant investment of £150million added to £50million apiece from Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society will make a big difference. If that was matched, then one could say there was half a billion pounds being dedicated to dementia research in the UK over the next few years, an incredible achievement.

So, lots to talk about and lots to debate in Dementia Awareness Week, some great new stories, some significant local interest, but as always much more yet to be done.

Professor Alistair Burns

Alistair Burns is Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at The University of Manchester and an Honorary Consultant Old Age Psychiatrist in the Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust. He is the National Clinical Director for Dementia and Older People’s Mental Health at NHS England and NHS Improvement.

He graduated in medicine from Glasgow University in 1980, training in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital and Institute of Psychiatry in London. He became the Foundation Chair of Old Age Psychiatry in The University of Manchester in 1992, where he has variously been Head of the Division of Psychiatry and a Vice Dean in the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, with responsibility for liaison within the NHS. He set up the Memory Clinic in Manchester and helped establish the old age liaison psychiatry service at Wythenshawe Hospital. He is a Past President of the International Psychogeriatric Association.

He was Editor of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry for twenty years, (retiring in 2017) and is on the Editorial Boards of the British Journal of Psychiatry and International Psychogeriatrics. His research and clinical interests are in mental health problems of older people, particularly dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. He has published over 300 papers and 25 books.

He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2016, received the lifetime achievement award from their old age Faculty in 2015 and was awarded the CBE in 2016 for contributions to health and social care, in particular dementia.