Lizzy Buchan: When it comes to dementia it's handle with care

USING the word breakthrough sets off alarm bells when it comes to Alzheimer's, writes Lizzy Buchan but progress is being made

Fears of a dementia tsunami also appear to have been largely over-estimated, according to research published this week. Picture: Contributed
Fears of a dementia tsunami also appear to have been largely over-estimated, according to research published this week. Picture: Contributed

Whenever I think about dementia, I always see a woman in a waiting room. She is sitting in her chair, calm on the exterior, but inside she is fizzing with hope as she clutches a newspaper clipping.

Her talisman, the crumpled paper, gives her hope that there might be a cure for her mother who cannot pluck her daughter’s name from her tangled memories.

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She goes in to see the doctor who has to tell her she is wrong or the paper is wrong, or most likely a mixture of both. She breaks down in tears.

This woman could be anyone, torn to shreds by loss and clinging onto the smallest sliver of hope. She might be you, she could certainly one day be me.

When I first started writing about health it became clear very quickly that dementia was a topic to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity.

Worn out by headlines screaming of cures and ways of catching Alzheimer’s, a number of experts assured me in no uncertain terms of my responsibility towards our readers.

Of all the dreadful diseases I write about every day, I am always struck with how terrifying dementia really is for sufferers and their loved ones.

We all expect that our bodies will begin to crumble one day, although many of us do not devote too much thought to it, in the hope that this fear will go away.

But the idea that our brains will start to let us down is harder to comprehend.

That our hard-earned memories could slip away until the sum of our lives and sense of our selves is gone.

As science advances at break-neck speed, it seems strange that there are some things doctors cannot fix with their magic scalpels or wonder drugs.

We often fear the unknown and that which we cannot control, but we must not be afraid of dementia.

I do not say this to belittle the condition or the devastation it can wreak on so many lives.

I say it because it is time to de-mystify dementia, to look it full in the face and square our shoulders, as it is a problem that will not go away.

There is some uncertainty surrounding how the degenerative disease is caused but every small advance builds a vital picture for scientists.

On Tuesday a team of Scottish scientists spoke of a potential breakthrough in their quest for treatment for Alzheimer’s disease - the most common form of dementia - after uncovering a protein that could reverse symptoms in mice.

The word ‘breakthrough’ always sets off the alarm bells in my mind but it was clear to me that this is a vital step forward that is worth celebrating.

Professor Eddy Liew, who has been studying the IL-33 protein for 15 years, spoke eloquently about how the protein could digest the plaque deposits that build up around the brain in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

He believes it could also help inhibit the inflammation of brain tissue, which has been shown to encourage these plaque deposits in the first place.

It is not a cure, but the problem with dementia research is scientists are still finding out the basics of how the disease functions.

Every major discovery is a miniscule piece of an enormous puzzle.

Fears of a dementia “tsunami” also appear to have been largely overestimated, according to research published this week from the magnificently-named Professor Carol Brayne, at Cambridge University.

The wide-ranging study analaysed testimony from thousands of people in three cities in England and found that dementia rates could be much lower than predicted in the 1990s.

Original estimates put the number of anticipated new cases per year at around 250,000, whereas the new research claims it is closer to 210,000 cases per year.

Improvements in men’s health have been credited with curbing the rise as there was a stark split between the genders - 74,000 men and 135,000 women.

The team nodded to a drop in smoking and improvements to vascular health, meaning the circulation system. It has long been mooted among scientific circles that good brain health could have an impact on your chances of getting dementia.

Dementia is often seen as an older person’s illness but the underlying causes of the disease can materialise in people in their thirties and forties.

The problem is most people will be entirely unaware that they have the disease until many years later, by which point preventative action is useless.

Smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and eating less sugar are among the actions we could all take to help make our brains more healthy and more resilient to the threat of dementia.

For all the positives here, dementia is still a major global problem and the ageing population will only serve to compound that.

Scientists will continue looking for a cure and I live in hope that one day they will find one.

But for now, we have to look what can be done preventatively for future patients, and what can be done to improve life for the 90,000 Scots living with the disease.

That is a big number but every one of those people deserves our time and support.

Some hospitals have tried to become dementia friendly but we need to see more specialist support available.

Bed blocking is also a major issue, as many elderly people with dementia are trapped in hospitals because there is no social care available.

The idea of being unable to leave hospital is appalling, let alone if you are vulnerable and confused.

There is a growing trend for ‘dementia friendly’ businesses and communities which aim to put the needs of patients at the centre of what they do, so people are not excluded or isolated from their surroundings.

More needs to be done but it is a start.