The penny finally drops as politicians pledge support for dementia research
Ironically, given that it is one of the planet’s biggest illnesses, dementia also appeared to creep up on world leaders more focused on other conditions in an age when the talk was of curing the likes of HIV/AIDS and cancer. All that has changed, though, and this year will see a concerted international campaign to bring together, and support, work being done by scientists to tackle the condition. Governments have pledged to provide more funding for the researchers working in laboratories round the world to improve our understanding of what is a deeply debilitating illness.
However, even before world leaders woke up to the threat, scientists were making significant advances in their research into the condition, with much of their attention focusing on the role of genetics in illnesses such as Alzheimer‘s Disease. Separate research projects are examining ways of mitigating the effects of living with the disease by meeting the needs of sufferers and carers.
The catalyst for renewed governmental interest in the work being done was the G8 dementia summit held in London late last year, which was hosted by the UK and concluded with the publication of a communique in which the countries agreed to work towards identifying a cure, or a disease-modifying therapy, for dementia by 2025 and to significantly increase the amount spent on research.
World leaders said that they wished to increase the number of people involved in clinical trials and the number of studies on dementia, sharing data from work done across the G8 countries. The UK has already said that it aims to double its annual research funding to £132m by 2025. The new drive to tackle dementia comes against a backdrop of statistics which are frightening and underline the urgency of the research. The global number of dementia sufferers is expected to treble to 135 million by 2050 and currently the figure stands at 44 million. It is estimated that 71 per cent of the 135 million sufferers will be poor and middle income people.
The amount of money that the condition costs is also brought into focus by the statistics, which say that it costs $600bn globally to cope with sufferers.
Balanced against that is the relative paucity of investment into research. Ministers at the G8 summit agreed that the emphasis on dementia research was long overdue; in the UK alone, statistics show that cancer research receives eight times as much funding as dementia. About £590m is spent on cancer research with £267m coming from government; £52m of government money goes to dementia research. It’s a pattern reflected around the world and ministers of the G8 countries have called on the World Health Organisation to identify dementia as an increasing threat to global health and to help countries adapt to the challenges that it presents.
One of the problems is that dementia is an umbrella term that describes about 100 diseases in which brain cells die on a huge scale. All damage memory, language, mental agility, understanding and judgement and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form, affecting 62% of those living with dementia.
The reason for the low level of attention from politicians was that until relatively recently, dementia was considered a ‘normal part of ageing‘, regarded as incurable and leaving people needing full-time care as brain function wastes away. UK Prime Minister David Cameron, confirming that the UK Government would boost annual research funding from £66m, the 2015 pledge, to £132m by 2025, said: “This disease steals lives, wrecks families and breaks hearts. If we are to beat dementia, we must also work globally, with nations, business and scientists from all over the world working together as we did with cancer, and with HIV and Aids. “This is going to be a bigger and bigger issue, the key is to keep pushing. If we are to beat dementia, we must also work globally.”
UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged this when he said: “The amount of money going into research is too little. We would like a cure to be available by 2025. It’s a big, big ambition to have. If we don’t aim for the stars we won’t land on the moon.” The news that the UK Government will double its annual funding for dementia research has been welcomed by those working in the field. David Burn, Professor of Movement Disorder Neurology and Director of Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, which has a long track record in researching ageing issues, said: “We all need to step up to the plate and come up with new drugs and treatments to benefit patients with dementia. “This will come about through good science, good research, and possibly a bit of luck too in terms of discoveries. We can deliver improved diagnosis, but ultimately the public want better treatments, and more research funding will go a long way towards achieving this.”