11 June 2007

Another Alzheimer's Warning

Newsweek 18 June 2007: Caregiving & Alzheimer's: Confronting Alzheimer'sNew research indicates that the incidence of Alzheimer's disease will quadruple by 2050, at which point 1 in 85 people worldwide will have the brain-wasting disease. We in Britain were warned earlier this year that by the middle of the century, dementia is expected to affect the lives of around one in three of us, either as a sufferer, a carer, or a relative. Treatment has been hampered by the availability of drugs on the NHS and the misuse of sedatives. Yet, if these were the only problems, the disease need not present an insurmountable crisis in health care.

The bigger problem is that the disease is difficult to detect in its early stages and the impact of existing drugs is only really significant if they are prescribed early on. Progress recently made by researchers in America therefore offers us all hope. One group at the University of Pennsylvania has developed tests involving blood and brain scans that can detect early symptoms of Alzheimer's, while another at the University of California San Francisco has identified a number of factors that a family doctor could use to predict who might be developing Alzheimer's. These factors include the time it takes to button a shirt, the time needed to walk fifteen feet, not drinking any alcohol at all, and unexplained weight loss.

Once such predictive tests are fully developed and widely available, they will both help patients and their families to plan better for the future and offer scientists the opportunity to develop new treatments. Delaying the onset of dementia by five years would halve the number of deaths directly attributable to the condition each year and reduce the burden of care for both health workers and families. It is therefore a scandal that the Government places such a low priority on Alzheimer's research — it urgently needs to increase funding to levels more comparable with other diseases, such as cancer.

If you have experience of caring for someone with dementia, please do email me or share your story with us in the comments.