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Saturday, 12 January, 2002, 00:16 GMT
High hopes for Alzheimer's film
Dame Iris Murdoch
Dame Iris Murdoch died from Alzheimer's disease
Experts hope a star-studded film about novelist Dame Iris Murdoch and her struggle with Alzheimer's disease will prove to be a significant landmark in the fight against the condition.

Funds from a Gala launch of the Golden Globe nominated film on Sunday will be used to finance work into communication by and with people with dementia.

Alzheimer's facts
Over 700,000 people in the UK have dementia
More than half of these have Alzheimer's disease
Dementia affects one in 20 people over the age of 65 and one in five over the age of 80
But it is hoped that the film will also have a profound impact on raising public awareness of a debilitating disease which many sufferers and their carers struggle to cope with unaided.

Dr David Wilkinson, director of the Memory Assessment and Research Centre, Southampton University, said many people with the disease were still not getting the treatment they needed.

He warned Alzheimer's will become much more common over the next 20 years as the population ages - about 20% of those over the age of 80 have some evidence of dementia.

He said: "There are still far too many Iris's out there, who are not only failing to receive the care they deserve, but not even being acknowledged as worthy of our attention."

Dr Wilkinson said there was still a tendency to regard Alzheimer's as a problem which needs shutting away in residential homes.

Drugs, such as Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl, are available to treat the condition, but they are prescribed sparsely in the UK.

"It is hard for someone in the field to regard this as purely a lack of funds if we look at the cost of these drugs - 1,000 a year - in the context of the NHS drug budget as a whole.

"The NHS medicines budget includes enormous amounts of money spent on drugs for indigestion and far less life-threatening illnesses.

"It seems to suggest that there is an inherent ageism or resistance to treating this illness, both from the funding agencies and the treatment agencies."

Love story

The film tells the story of the novelist's life with her husband, Oxford academic Professor John Bayley.

It switches between their romance in the 1950s, and the onset of her Alzheimer's disease 40 years later which led to her death in 1999.

While Dame Iris ceases to understand the world around her, her husband is left to cope with a woman with whom he can barely communicate. Together they inhabit an increasingly lonely and chaotic world.

Dame Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench plays Murdoch in later life
Harry Cayton, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, said the film powerfully demonstrates just what a profound effect the disease can have, not only on the sufferer, but on their loved ones.

He said: "Facing Alzheimer's, as the film shows, requires courage and perseverance both on the part of the person with the disease and their carers.

"People with Alzheimer's and other dementias often cannot speak up for themselves.

"Iris will reach a large section of the population who might not otherwise think about dementia."

Professor Bayley formed the Iris Murdoch Research Fellowship after his wife's death, to raise funds for research into dementia.

Kate Winslet
Kate Winslet plays the young Murdoch
He said: "It is fitting and appropriate that Iris Murdoch's name should be lent to research that will further our understanding of the communication difficulties faced by people with dementia and those close to them.

"I hope investigations in this under-researched field will lead to tangible improvements in the way we communicate with those suffering from this devastating disease."

Lack of understanding

People with dementia face increasing difficulties in understanding what is said or what is going on around them as their illness progresses.

Harry Cayton
Harry Cayton said the film would raise public awareness
They gradually lose their speech, endlessly repeat the same words or cry out from time to time.

What is sometimes seen as challenging behaviour exhibited by people with dementia is often an attempt by the person to communicate.

Very little is known about the way in which dementia affects the language centres of the brain. The new research will focus on this area.

Dr Richard Harvey, director of research for the Alzheimer's Society, said: "People with dementia should be encouraged to communicate in whatever way seems most appropriate in order to help them preserve their own sense of identity and improve their quality of life.

"Topics for the fellowship might include the psycho linguistics of dementia or the use of non-verbal communication with people with dementia.

"This research fellowship will therefore play an invaluable role in furthering our understanding in this field and in helping us to better communicate with people with dementia in the future."

  • Iris will be on general release from Friday 18 January.

  • See also:

    08 Jan 02 | Oscars 2002
    30 Nov 01 | Entertainment
    20 Dec 00 | Medical notes
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