Thursday, 19 May 2016

Dementia: not drowning but waving

Posted by Mark Parkinson, Post Graduate Student at Northumbria University

It's Dementia Awareness Week in England as part of Alzheimer’s Society’s ongoing campaign to raise public awareness of this disease. It also affords us the opportunity to take stock of just how far we have progressed since the dark days of the 1980s. Back then a mood of extreme pessimism surrounded dementia amid stark warnings that this ‘rising tide’ represented an unstoppable tsunami-like force that would engulf the UK. Attempts to avert the coming disaster were seen as futile and hopeless, akin to King Canute holding back the sea. The prevailing mood of despondency was ‘justified’ by nine fallacies of dementia emanating from a general lack of knowledge and understanding about dementia.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa
  • Fallacy No.1: Dementia was commonly perceived to be part of ‘normal ageing’. Dementia is now widely acknowledged as a clinical condition characterised by neurobiological abnormalities that distinguish it from so-called ‘normal’ ageing. The public perception of dementia as a disease that is separate from ‘normal’ ageing is increasing in the UK but campaigns such as Dementia Awareness Week are still necessary.
  • Fallacy No.2: Dementia is unavoidable. Protective factors that help guard against vascular dementia in particular include our lifestyle choices, including smoking cessation, regular exercise, adherence to a healthy diet and avoiding becoming obese. The identification of potential triggers for dementia paves the way for future interventions that might mitigate the onset of dementia entirely, including monitoring for catalysts for dementia such as cardio-vascular disease, obesity, diabetes and depression. Intervention programs targeting at-risk groups have demonstrated success in preventing dementia, e.g. FINGER (a two-year programme that focuses on diet, exercise, cognitive retraining and monitoring and treating vascular risk). Latest research also highlights further candidate triggers for dementia such as interleukin 33 (IL-33) protein deficiency which may be remedied via injections to prevent dementia.
  • Fallacy No.3: Dementia is irreversible. Although this remains the case for now, the development of treatments such as Galantamine have been shown to at least moderate the effects of dementia.
  • Fallacy No.4: Dementia is untreatable. The search for a cure for dementia remains ongoing and we have moved into an era where the potential discovery of better treatments and an eventual cure has never been so high. For now though prevention via identification of key triggers remains the main option in the absence of a cure.
  • Fallacy No.5: Dementia is a diagnosis to mortality within seven years. Dementia related diseases such as Alzheimer’s now have a typical duration of 10 or more years and evidence suggests that, in general, people with dementia are living longer. The challenge continues to be ensuring they live as well as possible.
  • Fallacy No.6: Dementia is too varied and unpredictable to treat. Greater understanding of the different sub-types of dementia, their different causes and symptoms, combined with improved ability to detect them makes treatment for dementia a more viable possibility.
  • Fallacy No.7: Dementia is only detected when it is already too late to act. This remains a key issue; however, improved diagnostic tests and screening have improved early detection of the disease.
  • Fallacy No.8: Dementia is too expensive to treat. Recent interventions such as Cognitive Stimulation Therapy (CST) can be delivered to people living with dementia via just 14 hourly sessions. CST has demonstrated equivalent but more sustained effects compared to relatively expensive drug treatments.
  • Fallacy No.9: The number of those with dementia will increase exponentially in the future. Recent comparisons between CFAS1 (Cognitive Function and Ageing Studies) (1991) and CFAS2 (2015) conducted by Cambridge University reveal that dementia prevalence in the UK has actually declined by 22 per cent over this 24 year period. Those born in the latter part of the 20th century exhibit a lower risk factor for dementia than those born earlier. The tsunami warnings of the 1980s have been proven wrong.
Importantly, all this does not signal a time to relax. The need to raise awareness of dementia and the challenges associated with it remains as urgent as ever. In the 1980s a sense of urgency towards tackling dementia provided a much needed catalyst for change. Today a key difference is that this urgency is no longer fuelled by impotent fear but by renewed hope and optimism that galvanises fresh impetus to all our endeavours to beat the disease.

With acknowledgement to the inspired presentation on 25 April, 2016 at the first Gateshead Dementia Conference by Dr.Daniel Collerton (Clinical Psychologist associated with dementia care at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead).

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