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How COVID-19 has changed our attitudes to dementia

As we start to adjust to the new normal of post-pandemic life, it’s clear the experiences of 2020 have not only shaped public health but also the UK’s attitudes to health, including dementia.

In 2018, Alzheimer’s Research UK commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct an in-depth analysis of public attitudes to dementia in the UK. Wave 1 of the Dementia Attitudes Monitor revealed important insights about how UK adults viewed dementia, and their thoughts around diagnosis, risk, treatment and research.

The Monitor was designed to be the most regular comprehensive tracker of attitudes to dementia and research, and we carried out Wave 2 in summer of 2021. But with Wave 2 coming so closely after the pandemic, it’s also highlighted the potential impact of COVID-19 on long-term attitudes to dementia.

Improvements in understanding, but growing fear

Wave 2 of the Dementia Attitudes Monitor, kindly funded by The Perfume Shop, reveals that more people are recognising that dementia is caused by physical diseases, most commonly Alzheimer’s disease, and the seriousness of these brain diseases.

The pandemic had a devastating impact on the lives of people with dementia, with more than a quarter of those who died of COVID-19 in England and Wales also having dementia. This heartbreaking statistic seems to have left a lasting impression on the UK public, with greater recognition of the seriousness of these diseases and the vulnerability of those living with them.

  • Almost 2 in 3 adults (62%) agree that dementia is a cause of death, up from just over 1 in 2 (51%) in Wave 1.
  • Over two-thirds (68%) of UK adults now disagree that ‘dementia is an inevitable part of getting older’, up from 60% in 2018.

 

A potential knock-on impact of the effect of the pandemic on those with dementia, is that fear of dementia is increasing. Almost half (49%) of UK adults now say that dementia is the health condition they fear most in the future – with 3 in 5 people over 65 telling us that dementia is their greatest health concern.

Strong appetite to seek a diagnosis

In February 2021, Alzheimer’s Research UK raised concerns that during the pandemic (between February 2020 and January 2021), 40,000 fewer people than expected received a diagnosis of dementia in England.

We were concerned that people with suspected dementia were not seeking help and therefore not receiving the support and treatments that may help with their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

It’s reassuring that our survey in 2021 has shown that 89% of people are likely to seek a formal diagnosis from a doctor if they were concerned they were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or another dementia. For those who would be reluctant to see a doctor, none mentioned COVID-19 as the reason why.

Openness to emerging and remote technologies

In a year that has seen mass testing and vaccination programmes rolled out across the world, Wave 2 of the Dementia Attitudes Monitor shows strong and growing willingness to undergo different tests to help diagnose dementia now and in the future.

More than 9 out of 10 people would be willing to undergo brain scans, memory and thinking tests and blood tests to make an accurate and early diagnosis of dementia.

With the pandemic seeing aspects of healthcare being delivered remotely, and growing interest in the use of digital data and Artificial Intelligence to improve healthcare, we also explored public willingness towards smartphone apps and wearables.

Three quarters of people told us they would be willing to use this type of smart technology to help give an accurate and early diagnosis in future.

This is positive news for cutting-edge research programmes like our Early Detection of Neurodegenerative diseases (EDoN) initiative, which is collecting data on aspects of day-to-day life like activity, sleep, speech and movement to try to develop ways to pick up early warning signs of diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Willingness to get involved in research at an ‘all time high’

Set against the backdrop of over half a million people across the UK taking part in COVID-19 research, we found that almost 1 in 3 Brits say they are more likely to take part in medical research as a result of the pandemic.

Wave 2 of the Monitor shows that more than 2 out of 3 people (69%) are now willing to take part in medical research into dementia, up from 1 in 2 (50%) in 2018 and the highest ever recorded by Alzheimer’s Research UK.

This is really positive news for the hundreds of important research studies waiting to get underway across the UK to develop ways to better understand, diagnose and treat dementia.

During 2020, Join Dementia Research helped 16,000 people with and without dementia to take part in research studies – more than in any previous year. Find out how you can get involved here.

At Alzheimer’s Research UK, we continue to monitor and understand the short and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public, people with dementia and their families and researchers.

Find out more

You can find out more about the UK’s attitudes to dementia at www.dementiastatistics.org/attitudes

You can also listen back to our Lab Notes session on the impact of COVID-19 on people with dementia and the brain.

About the author

Hilary Evans

Hilary is Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, which is a charity working at a global level towards a world where people are free from the fear, harm and heartbreak of dementia. The organisation’s aim is to raise awareness of the diseases that cause dementia, to increase dementia research funding and improve the environment for dementia scientists in the UK and internationally. Alzheimer’s Research UK is at the forefront of challenging people’s perceptions of dementia, finding innovative ways of communicating and creating new platforms to engage the public in a united fight to defeat dementia.

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