Scientists warning of dementia timebomb

THE UK is facing a "dementia timebomb" and must increase research funding urgently to stem the growing numbers who are developing the condition, experts have warned.

In an open letter, 31 of the country's leading scientists and experts have called on the government to end "years of underfunding" in dementia research.

The amount that is devoted to studying conditions such as Alzheimer's disease needs to be tripled or the UK will "pay the price", it said.

The letter says that within a generation the number of UK sufferers will double to 1.4 million, costing the economy 50 billion every year.

Read Lawrence Whalley's analysis here

By 2025, the total of those living with dementia is set to hit one million, seriously affecting the capacity of health and social care services to cope with the growing demands.

Without increased investment in research, millions more people will die with dementia in the future, researchers have said. The country's top scientists are calling for the Westminster government to increase money for research into the condition to 96 million within five years.

They said the 32m awarded by the government and Medical Research Council in 2007-8 was eight times less than that spent on cancer studies and amounts to about the same as the cost of building one mile of motorway.

The figure is equivalent to just 53p per person on dementia research – compared with 1.52 in the United States.

With the number of patients rising every week, the scientists have urged the government to act now, as a ministerial dementia research summit takes place in London today.

In Scotland, about 67,000 people currently have dementia – a figure set to rise to 114,000 by 2031.

The new campaign has been co-ordinated by the Alzheimer's Research Trust, with backing from the Alzheimer's Society and the Parkinson's Disease Society.

Among the scientists who have signed the letter are Professor Lawrence Whalley, from Aberdeen University, and Dr Karen Horsburgh, of Edinburgh University.

The scientists said that for every pound spent on caring for people with dementia, a fraction of a penny was spent on research into the condition.

"Our key weakness is lack of funding, not lack of talent," they wrote.

"The government must use this summit to initiate a national dementia research strategy. Most importantly, it must commit to tripling its annual support for dementia research to 96m within five years.

"If the government squanders this opportunity, we will all pay the price."

Scientists want to speed up research in areas such as new treatments, as well as ways of diagnosing dementia earlier and preventing it.

Prof Whalley said: "I am appalled that research into Alzheimer's and related diseases, which affect 700,000 people in the UK, currently receives less than 3 per cent of government medical research funding. I strongly urge the government to increase funding for dementia research as a matter of urgency."

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, said the UK had some of the world's leading dementia scientists and needed to take advantage of this with more money for research.

"If we don't act now on research, we will face a dementia timebomb," she said.

Professor Julie Williams, the letter's lead author and chief scientific adviser to the Alzheimer's Research Trust, added: "Week after week British dementia scientists come a step closer to understanding what causes dementia, and how this might be translated into new treatments.

"The government has a great opportunity to use today's summit to formulate a national dementia research strategy, offering hope to the 700,000 people in the UK who live with dementia.

"Despite the current squeeze in public finances, upping our investment in dementia research would be prudent.

"If we can work out how to delay the onset of dementia by five years, we could halve the number of people who die with the condition."

In 2007-8, the 32m spent on dementia research by the government and Medical Research Council was dwarfed by 248.5m spent on cancer research.

Professor Clive Ballard, director of research at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "Dementia costs the UK more than heart disease, stroke and cancer combined, but the government invests eight times less in dementia research than cancer.

"Significant breakthroughs are within our grasp, but without further investment millions more people will die.

"There are 700,000 people with dementia in the UK and this will rise to more than a million people in less than 20 years.

"The cost of dementia will increase from 17bn today to over 27bn by 2026."

The campaign has the backing of author Sir Terry Pratchett, himself a dementia patient.

Sir Terry, the patron of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, said: "There's only two ways it can go: researchers, with as much help you can give them, may come up with something that reduces the effects of this dreadful, inhuman disease, or we will have to face the consequences of our failure to prevent the final years of many of us being a long, bad dream.

"The strain on carers and their support is bad enough now; before very long the effects on the health service and society itself will be unbearable."

The Scottish Government said it was already investing more in dementia research.

A spokeswoman said: "It is vital that we improve support for people with dementia at the earliest possible stage, in areas such as early diagnosis, post-diagnostic support and information for carers, and workforce training – this is driving the development of our national Dementia Strategy for Scotland."

In numbers

700,000 people with dementia in the UK

1.4m people predicted to have dementia by 2037

17bn cost of dementia a year to the UK economy

47% Scots know someone close to them with dementia

32.2m spent on dementia research in 2007-8

24.2m worldwide sufferers

Funding for medical research

Neurological (including dementia)


Cancer 282m

Infection 125m

Cardiovascular 86m

Mental Health 57m

Inflammatory and Immune 76m

Metabolic and Endocrine 42m

Musculoskeletal 10m

Stroke 21m

Approximate figures on research funded in the UK (government and medical research charities) during financial year 2004-5.

What it is and who is affected

DEMENTIA is used to describe the serious deterioration of mental functions, such as memory, language and judgment.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, but several other diseases can also cause it too.

Alzheimer's accounts for about two-thirds of cases of dementia in the elderly.

Other diseases that cause dementia are vascular dementia and fronto-temporal dementia, and it is not uncommon for people to have more than one form of dementia.

Dementia affects about 700,000 people in the UK, with the number increasing daily.

In the UK, an estimated 25 million people, or 42 per cent of the population, are affected by dementia through knowing a close friend or family member with the condition. In Scotland this rises to 47 per cent.

Dementia mainly occurs in people over the age of 65, but can also happen in younger people.

At present there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, though some treatments are available that can temporarily help with some of the symptoms.

Last year, researchers in Scotland revealed that they were testing a treatment capable of halting Alzheimer's disease in its tracks.

The drug – called Rember – slowed down the progression of Alzheimer's by as much as 81 per cent.

Experts said they hoped the drug, expected to be widely available within four years, could initially be used in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's to stop the disease progressing.

There is no sure way to prevent dementia. However, research suggests that the risk of developing such diseases can be reduced with a healthy lifestyle and diet.

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