Why is dementia research the elephant in the room?


By Dr Matthew Norton | Tuesday 15 October 2013

With the Care Bill running through parliament, the development of historic reform of the funding system for social care and much political focus on the integration with the health system. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Gordian Knot that is health and social care integration is close to being severed.

Challenges to health and social care integration

There are a number of reasons why there is still a long way to go before it can be claimed that social care has been fundamentally and sustainably reformed:

  1. The challenges associated with funding reform;
  2. A lack of a concrete and proven plan to integrate health and social care with a focus on the individual;
  3. Structural issues relating to the fact that health is free at the point of use and social care is not.

The Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia is helping push dementia into the spotlight, but the problem is much bigger.

However, at Alzheimer’s Research UK we are concerned that the issue of dementia and particularly research into finding effective treatments is being missed in the debate around health and social care. Of course we have the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia, and this has been responsible for a huge step forward in fighting dementia, but we know this alone isn’t enough. A focused and coordinated effort to create a step change in the way we tackle a particular issue is one thing, but in order to create a sustainable and ambitious legacy it is crucial to build solutions, learnt from this initiative and others, into the fabric of the health and care services. Doing so will continue to improve the lives of people with dementia long beyond any single initiative. The current agenda around social care presents us with one such opportunity.

Why isn’t dementia research part of the debate?

Up until now, putting the odd political sound bite aside, there has been relatively little mention of dementia and dementia research in the wider social care debate. If we take a brief look at the key statistics it becomes obvious why this is a missed opportunity:

  • Academic estimates suggest that between 70% – 80% of the 422,000 people living in residential care homes in the UK have dementia
  • Up to 25% of all hospital beds are occupied with older patients with dementia and they stay in hospital for longer than others with similar conditions
  • We estimate that dementia costs the UK £23bn each year.

These huge personal and societal costs show why we need to do more. More means providing higher quality care at a lower cost – crucially through integrating services and focusing on the person– but also investing in research to create new therapies that will reduce the huge impact of dementia and research that one day will find a cure. Without these crucial breakthroughs the cost of supporting people with dementia is likely to become unsustainable very quickly. We are already in a very perilous situation when it comes to both health and social care funding, so it isn’t such a stretch to hypothesise that the continued rise in the numbers of people with dementia could very quickly bankrupt the system.

Ignoring the issue will only store up problems in the future

The Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia is helping push dementia into the spotlight, but the problem is much bigger, it will require a joined up concerted effort across communities and crucially more research. Today, only around 2.5% of the government’s medical research budget is spent on dementia research compared to a quarter on cancer. It is important that the government and opposition grasp the issue of funding for dementia research within the context of policy development across health and social care integration, and that social care reform is used as a platform to argue for, and create the space to encourage, new research funding – because without more research the best possible reforms to the health and social care sector are still built on a foundation of sand.

This is a cross Blog post with Age UK


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About the author

Dr Matthew Norton

Dr Matthew Norton joined Alzheimer's Research UK as Head of Policy and Public Affairs in 2013 and lead on policy development and stakeholder engagement up to 2018. He has a PhD in Social Policy and experience of supporting the design and running of bio-medical and clinical research for the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Matthew has also worked as a Senior Policy Advisor at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and prior to joining Alzheimer’s Research UK worked in policy and research for Age UK.