Belfast Telegraph

PM turns summit on its head with focus on dementia

In the fine print of macro-economic policy in Fermanagh next week, the G8 leaders will discuss an issue that affects 19,000 people here – dementia, writes Bernadine McCrory

When the leaders of the G8 come to Fermanagh today week, they will be discussing an issue that affects nearly 19,000 people in Northern Ireland.

It is not hunger, world security, or the economic crisis. It is dementia.

The Alzheimer's Society was delighted when, last month, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that the UK will use its presidency of the G8 to identify and agree a new international approach on dementia research in recognition that the condition is fast becoming the biggest pressure on healthcare systems around the world.

When he made this announcement, the prime minister said: "Dementia is a devastating disease – not just for sufferers, but for their families and friends, too.

"And, as more people live longer, it is fast becoming one of the biggest social and healthcare challenges we face.

"Families, communities, health systems and their budgets will increasingly be strained as the number affected increases and so we need to do all we can to improve how we research, diagnose and treat the disease.

"That's why we're using our G8 [presidency] to bring together health ministers, clinical researchers and healthcare companies.

"If the brightest minds are working together on this, then we've got a greater chance of improving treatments and finding scientific breakthroughs.

"I've said before that we need an all-out fightback against dementia that cuts across society. Now we need to cut across borders and spearhead an international approach that could really make a difference."

Current estimates indicate that 35.6 million people worldwide are living with dementia, but with the world's population ageing, the World Health Organisation estimates that number will nearly double every 20 years, to an estimated 65.7 million by 2030, and 115.4 million by 2050.

There is already some excellent work going on within the G8. Japan, which has a reputation for being a nation that has high levels of respect for the elderly, has put a strong focus on tackling the cost of care.

The US, Germany, and France are spending the most on research and the latter is taking the lead in the EU presidency.

The UK's annual funding on dementia research will increase to around £66m by 2015, while President Obama has committed the US to spending around $550m (£360m) in dementia research each year.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry is investing billions. Our two universities here – Queen's and the University of Ulster – are leaders in the field of searching for suitable treatments for the disease.

The prime minister has also made a commitment to improve the rate of diagnosis in England to two-thirds by 2015. Currently, only around 46% of people get a diagnosis.

This rate of two-thirds of the people with dementia being diagnosed has already been reached by two of the health trusts in Northern Ireland; and the average diagnosis rate here is 63%, so we have a lot to be proud of. But let's not be complacent; with the help of our healthcare workers, we can get even better.

Talking about dementia, however, is something we are not so good at in Northern Ireland.

While we want our leaders to talk about dementia, we were disappointed to find, in a recent YouGov poll released by the Alzheimer's Society, that almost half the people in Northern Ireland (43%) would find it difficult to tell their families if they thought they had dementia.

In addition, talking to people who we think might have the condition is even more of a concern, with 57% of people in Northern Ireland agreeing that they would find it difficult to broach the subject of dementia with someone they knew, if they were worried they were developing the condition.

In response to this survey, the Alzheimer's Society published It's Time To Talk About Dementia, a booklet that provides tips on starting a conversation about the condition.

We know that talking can be an important step in changing things for the better.

With two-thirds of people with dementia living at home, it's not just friends and families who need to be more open about the condition, but the wider community, too.

The more we know about dementia, the more prepared we'll be to face it together, as Theresa Clarke, from Antrim, told me recently when she visited Stormont to talk to our MLAs and policy-makers about how dementia had affected her.

Theresa said: "I was diagnosed with dementia in early-2010. Being open and honest about the impact of dementia on life is freeing for me, my family and friends.

"I believe that too many persons given a diagnosis of dementia visualise themselves in the end-stage of the illness and begin to close in on themselves.

"Being uncommunicative, shutting ourselves off from family and friends and ceasing our regular hobbies and interests is detrimental for everyone concerned."

So, it's not just the G8 leaders who should be talking about dementia.

We all should.

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