We have known for long enough that Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia, will represent the greatest challenge to the health service in the future. It is accepted that these conditions will become this country’s biggest killer as the population ages, ahead of cancer. But did we imagine that the number of deaths caused by Alzheimer’s disease would triple in Scotland in a year?
It’s a startling statistic, and although a change in the recording of deaths will have contributed partly to the rise, this factor alone is unlikely to be responsible for a 33.4 per cent rise in the number of Alzheimer’s deaths from March to June this year, compared to the same period last year. If the disease was previously known as a demographic time bomb, perhaps that description is already out of date.
There is consolation to be taken from this story as well, however. Deaths caused by Alzheimer’s indicate diagnosis was achieved – which has not always been the case, with diagnosis often delayed until confirmed at death in previous years – and with diagnosis should have come the support that each person required during his or her struggle.
For the Scottish Government, increased diagnosis means increased support costs and increased pressure on already stretched resources. But there is no choice in this matter. Dementia will prove to be a heavy drain on social care and health budgets, and we have to prepare for the incidence of these conditions rising.
The Scottish Government has been committed to free personal care, and this month announced its intention to extend that level of care to those under 65 with degenerative conditions, by 2019. If we continue to see exponential growth of dementia, is this level of commitment sustainable? Will an adjustment be required? Forecasts will have to be revised.
Alzheimer’s Research UK has responded to the increased death rate with a call for greater funding for research, highlighting its goal of developing a “life-changing treatment for dementia by 2025”.
At present, it would seem optimistic to believe a treatment will be available within eight years. But the call for increased funding should be heard. In the battle that lies ahead, there will be a temptation to focus on how we care for those affected. We cannot lose sight of the need to explore a way of controlling this appalling illness which, sooner or later, will touch every family.