Whether you are old or young, rich or poor, conservative or progressive, voted in or out – it’s always good to remember that there are many more things that unite us than divide us. A lot of these are positive influences on our lives, from the importance of family and friends to the love, compassion and laughter shared between them.
But very often, we are also united by the challenges we face. Dementia, which currently affects more than 800,000 people in the UK alone, is one of these challenges that should bring all of us together. This week is Dementia Awareness Week and it is a good opportunity to highlight just how devastating the impact of dementia is on those living with it, on their families and friends, and on society as a whole. Dementia doesn’t know any barriers, its various forms can affect anyone, anywhere. It’s time we worked towards a more comprehensive response to end it once and for all.
That’s the message of the Alzheimer’s Society, who this week are launching their biggest ever awareness campaign, calling on society to unite against dementia – a campaign I am happy to join.
Dementia is set to become one of the biggest killers of the 21st century. It is estimated that someone develops a form of dementia every three minutes. That’s 9.9 million new cases across the world every year – a father, a sister, a friend, a colleague. As you are reading this, think about the people close to you. I know few people who have not confronted dementia in some form in their families or their social circles. In the UK, one in 14 adults over 65 is affected. And that number is rising.
Many people find dementia difficult to talk about. Those suffering from it often go through dramatic mental changes, and their own suffering is compounded by the struggles of their loved ones to come to terms with the transformation happening before their eyes. Dementia often creates an overwhelming feeling of loss, and it’s perhaps more devastating because it is loss in life, not in death. It’s no surprise then that dementia is one of the public’s most feared health conditions.
But that’s exactly why more needs to be done to learn about the disease, rather than shying away from it. Because across the world, stigma against the disease is still rife – in some countries, there isn’t even a word for dementia – and people are frequently disowned and isolated from society because of it.
What’s equally alarming is that most people view dementia as an inevitability. Last year, I blogged about Alzheimer’s Research UK’s #sharetheorange campaign, which explained that dementia is not a natural part of ageing, but a disease. And diseases can be prevented and beaten.
The most common, but by no means only cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which physically attacks the brain. In the same way the layers and pieces of an orange can be gradually stripped away, that is how dementia takes hold.
I have mentioned my Uncle Charlie before, whose partner Barbara has bravely been battling Alzheimer’s for some years now. Uncle Charlie wrote to me about the helplessness and pain associated with slowly losing his best friend and soul mate to such a cruel disease.
Alzheimer's Disease International
So, now is the time to rise to the challenge of ending dementia in the same way we have successfully tackled so many other diseases. Every effort we take, through volunteering, donating and campaigning, takes us one step closer to that goal.
Doing so will further progress that is already being made in this field. I am particularly excited by the scientific breakthroughs taking place. One involves the use of new brain imaging tools that allow researchers to detect changes in the brain up to 20 years before symptoms start. This vastly increases the time frame within which the disease can be prevented from progressing.
Another area concerns our understanding of the causes behind different forms of dementia. By learning more about the ways in which dementia affects brain cells, researchers are able to design more effective treatments.
The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that over one million people just in the UK will develop dementia by 2021. How we respond to this massive crisis will depend on our capacity to support the essential research required to combat the disease and to draw much-needed attention to the essential social care provided by family members and others on a daily basis. We need a wave of awareness, compassion, political will and resources. The time to act is now.
Visit www.alzheimers.org.uk to find out more about how you can help.