Oftentimes, dementia research faces less notoriety and funding than other diseases, but David Cameron is looking to change that by pledging £300m to help find solutions. But will this help the UK beat other nations as the one-stop research stop?
Thanks to the United Kingdom, dementia research just received a kick into high gear. According to the BBC, Prime Minister David Cameron announced today that £300m will now be part of the government spending budget.
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Calling the crisis "one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime," the Conservative Party leader also said that an international dementia institute will be established within the next five years. The timing isn't surprising. Baby boomers, or those during born between 1946 and 1964, are aging into international the receiving end of healthcare systems. And the Alzheimer's Association believes the current 5 million diagnosed could triple to over 16 million by 2050.
While 2050 may seem to be a bit away, research statistics already show the fundamental cost to caring for dementia patients without proper resources and procedures. Stating that 1.3 million National Health System employees will receive additional training, Cameron wants to make life easier for those living with the disease, but not everyone is sold on his promises.
Labour's shadow health secretary Andy Burnham believes the goal is admirable, yet notes that Cameron’s cutting of the national health budget isn’t helping people now. "Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable older people have lost social care support since David Cameron entered Downing Street.” He continued, “Social care in England is close to collapse but this government is in denial about it."
Burnham’s comments contradict the UK’s own statement, according to the British news agency. In fact “a separate multimillion-pound fund would be launched within weeks to help establish an international investment scheme to discover new drugs and treatments that could slow the onset of dementia, or even deliver a cure, by 2025”—a bold statement even as research is constantly being gathered.
Internationally, those living with the disease and caregivers wish for more help. The Alzheimer's Association estimates that in 2013, the nearly 15.5 million caregivers logged 17.7 billion hours at an unpaid cost of 220.2 billion—which is almost 8 times the total revenue for McDonald’s the previous year. Approximately 60% of the caregivers are women, which nearly matches the number of women with dementia in the UK.
Cameron also pledged for dementia-friendly communities in the meantime. The idea is to create a more stable environment for those living with the disease, which would include shopping, transportation, and public places where healthcare staff would be aware of the conditions. Many people assume memory loss is the biggest indicator, hence the need for areas, but actually that’s only one sign.
“Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning, which means the loss of the ability to think, remember, or reason, as well as behavioral abilities, to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities," the National Institute of Health in the US declares.
“Signs and symptoms of dementia result when once-healthy neurons (nerve cells) in the brain stop working, lose connections with other brain cells, and die. While everyone loses some neurons as they age, people with dementia experience far greater loss.”
And for proper diagnosis, a patient must exhibit the following:
Two or more core mental functions must be impaired. These functions include memory, language skills, visual perception, and the ability to focus and pay attention. These also include cognitive skills such as the ability to reason and solve problems.
The loss of brain function is severe enough that a person cannot do normal, everyday tasks.
Other signs include a loss of emotional control, such as sudden violent outbursts, delusions, or hallucinations. Cameron hopes that by announcing the funding, private, public, and philanthropic investors will join the cause.
There are common risks for developing the disease, however. Universal factors like age, alcohol use, hypertension, smoking and genetics are on the list. Other causes may consist of atherosclerosis, diabetes, Down Syndrome, and mental illness.
Speaking to High Wycombe’s patients with dementia and caregivers (known as dementia friends in the UK), Cameron also propositioned a new international view on what the UK can accomplish.
“What today's announcement is about is a very simple but bold ambition, and that is to make the United Kingdom the best place on the planet in terms of researching into dementia, in terms of diagnosing people with dementia and then in terms of treating, helping and caring for them."
Oxford University Professor Simon Lovestone noted that the latest drug tests had failed. “We now need to do better clinical trials, we need to do them earlier in the disease process, and for that we need tests for early diagnosis and we need better drugs.” But all is not lost since he believes that the Prime Minister and government’s message will help accomplish both goals.
"And I think that the announcement that's been made today, together with the investment that's already been made in the UK, puts the UK at the leading front of a truly international effort that will actually deliver on this.”
In 2012, both President Barack Obama and Cameron pledged to start finding solutions, cures, and procedures to help improve the life of dementia patients. While Alzheimer’s gets a large chunk of public attention, there are multiple kinds of dementia—in addition to mixed symptoms and diagnoses. The NIH stresses that research is still ongoing and requires a lot more study in order to give diagnoses.
Cameron is hoping the center will help to speed this up. Patient history, physical examination, and neurological evaluations are part of the initial assessment. Later, brain scans, laboratory tests, psychiatric evaluations, and cognitive/neuropsychological testing may be involved to narrow down the case.
The UK is hoping to narrow assessments down to six weeks and provide local support for both patient and caregivers. Caregiving is not easy and often takes a considerable mental toll. Shifting some of the focus to the caregiver offers the chance to mental disengage from the routine and find a moment to recharge.
And more than 1 million people signed up to be dementia friends, who are volunteers trained to recognize and help out patients in need. The BBC also reports that Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, sees the help as 'a real revolution' in how dementia patients and carers are treated. "In communities across the country, they are working to eradicate the isolation, fear and despair felt by so many affected by dementia."
UK Princess Anne's 1991 initiative, the Carers Trust, cautioned that help was useful, but not every problem would be easily fixed.
"Carers of people with dementia face particular difficulties due to the complex, unpredictable and progressive nature of the illness, and often have poor health outcomes themselves." Two-thirds of those living with dementia are cared for at home while continuing to partipicate socially with other people.
"Carers need consistent information and support to enable them and the person they are caring for to remain active and well."
A social safety net would be helpful for women caregivers facing adverse reactions in the workplace, or outright firing due to lack of time to take care of the patient and work-related business.
In the US, nearly 1 in 5 dollars spent in Medicare goes toward patients with dementia. Streamlining the process would allow caregivers the opportunity to help eliminate the nearly three times spent on care as opposed to those without. The rate of breast cancer is less than half the number of women facing dementia in the United States.
For more information on dementia, please check the NIH website.
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