The future is finally looking brighter for those living with dementia…

Professor Alistair Burns, NHS England's National Clinical Director for Dementia, takes a positive look at the future for dementia care, arguing that fear and lack of knowledge are preventing people from understanding how much can be done to help those living with Alzheimer's disease or one of the other forms of dementia.

Professor Alistair Burns

"Ask most people over the age of 55 about their greatest health fear and the chances are they will say it is getting dementia.

Some 850,000 people in the UK are now living with dementia, and that number is set to increase to one million by 2025.

Yet despite the growing spotlight on the condition and progress in raising diagnosis rates, there's still a lack of awareness of what dementia is and what can be done to help. Too many people still believe dementia is a normal part of ageing, and that's not true.

Too many believe nothing can be done for those affected - and that's not true either. Even worse, there's still a real stigma attached to dementia, which makes people reluctant to come forward in the early stages to get help, and can leave them isolated and worried once they do have a diagnosis.

We know that more than three-quarters of those diagnosed with dementia feel anxious or depressed. More than a third of those living at home say they only go out once a week. Many lack confidence about how they will cope or are worried about getting confused. That is a terrible toll we as a society are imposing on some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

So what more can we do? First, we all need to understand that, unlike age-associated memory loss, dementia is not a normal part of ageing.

It is caused by brain diseases, including Alzheimer's or a series of strokes. We do not yet have a cure, but we can address the symptoms, both through drugs and therapeutic approaches, so that people can feel an improvement for some time.

When the Dementia Challenge was launched back in 2012, for every
£1 million spent on dementia care, just 5p went on research - or a tiny one twenty-sixth of the proportion of cancer spending that went into research. That's starting to change.

Investment in dementia research has more than doubled in the past five years to some £66 million and the number of those living with the condition taking part in clinical trials is rising too.

We have not yet seen a breakthrough, but in the meantime, as well as tackling the symptoms, there are things we can all do to help people live well with dementia.

One of the key issues is to recognise that there is more to a person with dementia than their dementia. If you think of your memory as sets of bookshelves, with every shelf being 10 years of memories, when dementia starts to shake the shelves, the memories begin to fall from the top, so recent memories go first.

But the two types of memories - memory of events and emotional memories - are in different bookcases, with the memories of events in the flimsier plywood bookcase and the emotional memories in a sturdier heirloom.

That is why when people say: "What's the point of visiting my mother when she doesn't even remember my visit?", it is important to see that even if she might not remember what you talked about, she will remember the emotion she felt when she saw you and you greeted her with a kiss.

And in our communities and society as a whole, we need to ensure we see beyond the dementia label too.

The Dementia Friends initiative is a great way to address some of the social isolation that people living with dementia experience.

We can all pledge to do something to make a difference. That might be banks offering alternatives for people who cannot remember a pin number, it might be those in the media not calling people with dementia "sufferers", or it might be members of the public not complaining if an older person at the till in front of them is taking a long time counting out their change.

We have also adopted, through the Dementia Action Alliance, seven "I statements" - ambitions such as "I have support that helps me live my life", and "I live in an enabling and supportive environment where I feel valued and understood".

Dementia can cause immense stress for people living with the condition and their families and carers, and communities can play their part in making them feel supported. That's where organisations like Jewish Care can be so powerful.

We're often asked whether there is anything you can do to prevent dementia. There is evidence that some things might help: physical exercise, mental stimulation, only consuming alcohol in moderation, keeping your cholesterol and blood pressure under control. Above all, keeping active and thinking young.

And what of the future? There is some evidence that the number of new dementia cases is falling, thanks to better management of the risk factors for vascular dementia.

And although we have not yet made the breakthrough in finding a cure, with the interest in research, we are in a better place than we have ever been.

Professor Alistair Burns is NHS England's National Clinical Director for Dementia. This is a version of his lecture given at the Jewish Care Health Insights session in July and reported in The Jewish Chronicle Online 23/7/15