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Governments must join hands with charities in our fight against dementia

Submitted by on 13 Nov 2017 – 15:21

In our lifetimes, we’ve seen incredible progress with other serious health conditions like cancer and HIV/Aids – dementia can no longer be the underdog. Mathew Norton, Director of Policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK writes why governments should join hands with charities to intensify the fight against dementia

Today, there are 850,000 people living with the condition in the UK – with thousands more loved ones left heartbroken by the destruction it causes. This may still come as a surprise to many, but dementia is the leading cause of death for women in the UK and second biggest killer of men. What makes this challenge even more urgent is the broader effect dementia has on a person’s ability to manage a range of other chronic health conditions, particularly in later life. There is also a huge financial cost – dementia costs the UK economy £26billion each year.  As our population continues to age, and prevalence of dementia increases, these costs will only continue to rise.

Even though this may seem like a frightening reality, we know that through the power of research we can defeat dementia. We are closer than ever before to discovering the breakthrough we desperately need – thanks to a much-needed commitment to research and a renewed political focus in recent years.

At Alzheimer’s Research UK, we’re working to bring about a life-changing treatment for dementia – but this will only happen if the momentum we’ve built continues. The last government propelled dementia into the spotlight, doubled investment in research and made the condition a national priority – and we’ve made significant progress since the first Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge was launched in 2012.

Recent analysis shows that there are double the number of dementia researchers and scientific publications, compared to six years ago. While there is still only one dementia researcher for every four cancer researchers, that’s an improvement on the previous figure of one in six. Alongside this, the UK Dementia Research Institute has been established and is firmly underway, bringing together scientists from across the UK in a dedicated effort to defeat dementia.

But lately it’s been a turbulent time in politics and there’s concern that without support, our progress could come to a grinding halt, particularly as Brexit negotiations start to dominate the agenda. In this uncertain political climate, we must hold our government to account and not let dementia fall by the wayside. Thanks to the advances made over the past few years, the foundations are in place to deliver the life-changing treatment we need.

The UK Department of Health has promised to deliver the Challenge on Dementia 2020, and we were pleased when the Conservatives made another commitment to investing in dementia research in their manifesto. At the G8 dementia summit in 2013, the UK signed up to an ambition to find a disease-modifying treatment by 2025. If we are to achieve this vision, we need a long-term strategy taking us past 2020, as well as a commitment to activities that were started before the general election.

This includes the government’s response to leading academic Sir John Bell’s Accelerated Access Review, which examined how to speed up the way new medicines are made available. A series of recommendations were published at the end of last year and we are still waiting to hear whether the government will adopt these recommendations – a decision that will be important for getting future dementia treatments to those that need them.

In January, proposals were unveiled for an Industrial Strategy that would include investment in life sciences as one of its 10 pillars. This provides an important opportunity to bolster UK dementia research, so it will be critical to get the detail of the plan right. Only through funding research and enabling collaborations will we be able to bring an end to the heartbreak caused by dementia. As we embark on Brexit negotiations, the government must ensure scientists don’t lose out on valuable funding, or find themselves unable to participate in cross-border collaborations. Similarly, we will be seeking assurances about the positions of talented scientists from the EU who are carrying out important dementia research in UK labs.

In our lifetimes, we’ve seen incredible progress with other serious health conditions like cancer and HIV/Aids – dementia can no longer be the underdog. We are seeing reports that life expectancy is slowing for the first time in many years, and people are now living more of their later years in poorer health, because of conditions like dementia. Today, if we continue to build on recent progress, we have a fighting chance of defeating dementia and transforming the way this cruel condition impacts people for generations to come. Our government must stand with us in this fight.