Lack of vision for dementia at party conferences

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By David Thomas | Wednesday 18 October 2023

The UK’s Party Conference season has recently drawn to a close, and across the political spectrum, there was a welcome focus on the power of medical research, the need to prevent ill health and a focus on improving NHS performance, especially around diagnosis. And Alzheimer’s Research UK, accompanied by our brilliant supporter Sheila, were at the conference fringe, speaking to politicians about the need for urgent action on dementia.

But depressingly, despite some encouraging conversations, up on the main stage we noted a glaring omission from all parties’ frontline agendas – an almost complete lack of focus on dementia, arguably the biggest health challenge society is facing. And this raises questions about our nation’s political commitment to addressing it.

As our recent analysis showed, if nothing changes, one in two of us will be affected by dementia – either by caring for someone with the condition, developing it ourselves, or both. This statistic goes a long way to demonstrate the scale of the challenge on our hands. It’s a sobering outlook and highlights the urgent need for action.

But dementia isn’t just a health concern, it’s an economic one too. Caring for people with dementia cost the UK economy £25bn in 2021. And that figure is predicted to almost double – to a staggering £47bn – by 2050 as Brits’ average age increases. Along the way, dementia will become the nation’s most expensive health condition. Ignoring these economic implications is to ignore the challenges faced by our health service and the country as a whole.

Despite this, the keynote speeches of the party leaders and their health spokespeople failed give dementia the attention it desperately needs. The scale of the crisis means that every political party must have a plan for how they will tackle the harm and heartbreak caused by dementia should they be in government.

But we want you to reassure you that, at Alzheimer’s Research UK, we are not afraid of the work we need to do to put a stop to dementia. And we won’t stop until dementia is a top political priority.

In a report launched last month, we outlined to government the steps they can take now – and that all political parties should commit to taking in the future – to help tip the scales towards a better future for those affected by dementia. As we head into winter, we’ll be engaging with MPs up and down the country on these matters.

What are the opportunities for action?

1. Looking after our brain health to reduce our risk of developing dementia.

We can all take steps to look after our brain health, but the government must also play a crucial role in tackling the problems people can’t solve on their own. This includes cleaning up the air we breathe and making a healthy lifestyle more affordable and accessible.

It also means action on smoking. Up to 1 in 20 dementia cases around the world could be prevented or delayed by tackling smoking. So, Rishi Sunak’s proposal of a phased ban to prevent future generations from smoking is a welcome step in the right direction.

But we need the government to go further in boosting the nation’s brain health – and this means action on air pollution, hearing loss, and high blood pressure. We must move away from simply managing the consequences of ill-health and towards tackling the root causes of it. In doing so, the number of people who develop dementia in the future could be reduced.

2. Diagnosing dementia earlier and more accurately

NHS diagnostic services urgently need support. Current diagnostic capacity in the UK is severely limited after years of underinvestment, resulting in one in three people in England never receiving a dementia diagnosis.

Labour’s commitment to equipping the NHS with new diagnostic equipment through its proposed ‘Fit for the Future Fund’ is welcome, and we hope this will include equipment such as PET and CT scanners which are important for detecting the presence of amyloid – the hallmark protein of Alzheimer’s.

In the immediate term, government must focus on scaling up the number of lumbar punctures taking place in the NHS, so that we can identify people who would most benefit from new dementia treatments.

Speaking at Conservative Party Conference, our Head of Policy Dr Susan Mitchell said, “currently many people are offered a memory test – which can identify cognitive problems – but it doesn’t tell you whether you are going to be eligible for the new treatments that are able to slow the progression of the disease.”

Susan said the diagnostics are there, they just aren’t “routinely available” and this needs to change. You can listen to her panel discussion here.

3. Ensure the first treatments to slow Alzheimer’s are available on the NHS

The first ever treatments that can slow cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease could be approved by UK regulators in just a few months’ time. But, as we wrote about recently, these so-called ‘disease-modifying treatments’ won’t be considered affordable by the NHS if their costs are only compared to what the NHS itself spends on dementia, which is just £1.7bn per year. This is because – with comparatively little treatment currently available – most of dementia’s vast costs fall on informal carers, rather than NHS budgets.

The government must take a leading role in fast-tracking new dementia treatments on the NHS. This involves establishing a cutting-edge regulatory and clinical adoption pathway that unites pharmaceutical leaders, MHRA, NICE, and the NHS for rapid implementation.

4. Accelerate dementia research

With over 180 drugs in clinical trials globally, the world is now on the cusp of pioneering a new generation of dementia treatments. While continuing this work, we must bolster the UK’s ability to conduct cutting-edge dementia drug trials, enabling British families to access groundbreaking treatments early and establishing the UK as a prime destination for global life sciences investment.

On this theme, Labour’s 10-year R&D budget commitment is promising. It should prioritise fostering long-term collaboration between industry, the NHS, and academia, while future-proofing the UK’s research infrastructure. The ongoing efforts of the Dame Barbara Windsor Dementia Mission, launched by the current government, should be used to further strengthen this initiative.

Looking to the future

Our political parties must recognise that dementia is not a problem that can be brushed under the rug. Instead, it’s an issue that demands a united effort and a clear vision for the future. The lack of focus on dementia from the political parties at the 2023 party conferences is a missed opportunity to engage in a dialogue and develop meaningful policies to address this growing crisis. We can, and must, demand better.

We can’t make dementia a priority without your support. Alzheimer’s Research UK is always looking for more people across the UK to campaign with us for a cure. If you’d like to join a network of over 7,000 active campaigners, then sign up today.

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About the author

David Thomas

Head of Policy at Alzheimer's Research UK