Page last updated at 06:00 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

What is delaying a cure for Alzheimer's?

Rebecca Wood
VIEWPOINT
Rebecca Wood
Chief executive of Alzheimer's Research Trust

Researcher looking at equipment used to study Alzheimer's
The UK has some of the world's best scientists in the field of dementia

There's a bewildering plethora of bizarre research on the causes of Alzheimer's and it can seem as if little progress is being made on finding a cure for this debilitating disease.

In this week's Scrubbing Up, Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, argues that only lack of funds is holding back UK researchers from finding a cure.

What have curry, coffee, mobile phones, apple juice, early retirement and tofu got in common?

All have been said to increase or decrease Alzheimer's or dementia risk; some allegedly do both.

Of course dementia is not alone in being associated with the strange and familiar that might cause or cure it: one blogger runs the 'oncological ontology project' documenting the latest cancer cause or cure claims.

But is there anything in the claims that some of these things 'reduce dementia risk'?

There is also a recognition that dementia describes a number of serious diseases, and not an inevitable battiness that comes with old age

Quite often, there is.

I would forgive newspaper readers for feeling jaded over what might be the miracle dementia cure of the day.

But the increasing coverage on the international research efforts to defeat dementia should only be welcomed.

True, some of the stories we read may oversimplify research, or extrapolate findings a little too optimistically, but the fact that these stories are reported indicates that dementia is no longer kept under lock and key.

'Growing lobby'

With society now willing to talk openly about how dementia affects them, or their families, and speculation on how we might defeat it, there is a growing lobby for the condition to receive a higher position in the pecking order of disease research funding, and rightly so.

On every level, dementia is taking shape as the most grave health issue we face as a society

There is also a recognition that dementia describes a number of serious diseases, and not an inevitable battiness that comes with old age.

This rings a bell.

Not so many years ago, people spoke of losing loved ones to "a long illness".

Over time, the long illness was christened with a big C.

Then, it seemed we couldn't eat, drink or do anything for fear we might develop cancer.

Woman fitting last piece of a memory jigsaw together
700,000 people in the UK live with dementia

As cynical as we might be about some of these stories, the very fact that cancer was placed in the spotlight and in our cross hairs was pivotal.

It gave the disease sufficient standing on the agenda to attract the kind of attention and research funding that has brought about the treatments now benefitting countless people.

We now talk about fighting cancer with the realistic hope that we can beat it, and many people do.

We cannot yet speak in the same way of dementia, but I believe one day we will.

'Best scientists'

With no shortage of talent in the field of UK dementia research - we boast some of the world's most influential scientists - only lack of funds holds us back.
With investment, we can transform a UK dementia research sector that already punches above its weight into a prize fighter


700,000 in the UK live with dementia, and around them countless family members struggle to come to terms with the practical and emotional burden of care.

This number is rising, and will double within a generation. The public is convinced of the need for investment on compassionate grounds - numbers supporting the Alzheimer's Research Trust are at an all time high - but convincing government in these straitened economic times may need a different approach.

The statistics speak for themselves: dementia costs the UK £17 billion each year, more than cancer and heart disease combined.

As the population ages, this figure will rise to £50 billion within 30 years.

On every level, dementia is taking shape as the most grave health issue we face as a society.

With investment, we can transform a UK dementia research sector that already punches above its weight into a prize fighter.
Uncompleted jugsaw of the brain
Scientists say the last parts of the puzzle about Alzheimer's 'may be just around the corner

But this isn't about bragging rights; UK scientists have ambitions to follow up recent improvements in the understanding of the genetic make-up of Alzheimer's disease.

If we utilise our scientists' full potential, new treatments may be just around the corner.

To spot dementia early is a challenge itself, but multiple studies already under way show we have a good chance of significantly increasing diagnosis rates.

Part of this process involves determining the decisive risk factors that predispose people to dementia.

Research in this area is advanced, but further support could expand efforts and yield the lifestyle advice we can all use to reduce risk, as well as identifying treatment targets to focus the attention of scientists.

We can draw so much inspiration from the achievements of medical science in tackling other serious diseases.

We all need to see progress of this kind against dementia, to save us from growing heartbreak as the condition afflicts more and more families, and to avoid the unsustainable economic costs we face alongside this.

The Alzheimer's Research Trust is in the scientists' corner and funding them in the fight - but we need public money to strengthen our defence and to defeat dementia once and for all.




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