Dementia: The Facts

Dementia is the most feared disease amongst the over-50s. It is estimated that around 620,000 people in England suffer from it. But what is ‘dementia’, and what does the latest research reveal? File on 4 has the facts…

1. Dementia is a syndrome

Dementia is an umbrella term for a collection of symptoms including memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. It is caused when different diseases damage the brain, and there are many different types. The most common is Alzheimer’s, but others include Vascular (lots of mini strokes), Lewy Body, and dementia caused by Parkinson’s. Older people in particular may have more than one type.

2. Most feared

It’s the disease which people over 50 fear most. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, says the cost of dementia to the economy is £26bn per annum. The impact is felt across society – on individuals themselves; their families and carers; on social care; and on the NHS.

3. The numbers have stabilised

Recent studies have suggested the age specific incidence and prevalence – ie the number of people in the population at any given age – has decreased. In the UK, this means that the number of people with dementia has stabilised. But the biggest risk factor for dementia is age – as life expectancy increases, more and more people will be affected.

4. New research

Researchers suggest one explanation for this decline is lifestyle factors; up to 20% of new cases of dementia may be preventable. Stopping smoking, a healthy diet, exercise, drinking alcohol in moderation, lifelong learning and social activity in later life are all thought to offer some protection.

5. Investment in a cure

The government has invested £300m in dementia research to help find a cure and better ways of identifying who might be at risk – including genetic profiling. David Cameron says he wants to be on track to find a cure by 2025. The charities Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society have both pledged £100m towards further scientific research.

6. What causes it?

Scientists are still working out what causes dementia, with much of the focus on Alzheimer’s. Currently, there are only four drugs available to treat Alzheimer’s: these only work on the symptoms and don’t delay the progression of the disease itself – they are not effective in everyone.

7. Is a breakthrough possible?

There is lively debate in the scientific community as to the possibility of achieving a breakthrough cure by 2025. Researchers don’t all agree on the main cause of Alzheimer’s. One theory is that it’s caused by clumps of proteins called amyloid plaques. Other proteins and inflammation are involved too. These destroy the neurons in the brain and stop it from working. But not everyone agrees that amyloid plaques are the main cause. If a cure is found – opinions are divided – scientists tend to [think] it is unlikely to be delivered by a single drug, but rather as a cocktail of drugs as is typically the case in the treatment of cancer and HIV