Dementia mostly affects people over the age of 65; a result of the gradual decline of the brain in later life. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion, tiredness and decreased control of emotions. Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are currently living with dementia. So how prevalent is the condition, can it be prevented and what is the current state of care for those suffering with dementia in the UK?
Prevalence in the UK
A brand new study conducted by The Lancet has found that the prevalence of dementia seems to be lower now than in the late 20th century. The study compared data from three regions of the UK (Newcastle, Nottingham and Cambridgeshire) to that of a complementary study conducted 20 years ago. Because the population of older people in the UK has increased significantly since the 1980s, the actual number of dementia sufferers in the UK is actually slightly higher now than when the original study took place.
However, Professor Carol Brayne and her associates from the Medical Research Council Cognitive Function and Ageing Collaboration (MRC CFAS) found that, taking population changes into account, there is now a lower prevalence of dementia proportional to when the original study was carried out. According to this new research, dementia now affects 6.5% of the UK population; a fairly significant drop from the 8.3% affected at the time of the original study.
Explanations for the drop in dementia cases include improved public healthcare and education about health issues. People are now more aware of the importance of a healthy heart and body, which could be helping more people to avoid developing dementia symptoms. A healthy lifestyle of exercise and healthy eating doesn’t necessary guarantee that you’ll avoid developing dementia, but is certainly believed to help reduce your risk.
This study is important because it provides useful insights for the Government and NHS in planning UK dementia care in the future, and ensuring that resources are allocated appropriately. That said, it’s essential not to take this apparent step forward for granted. Increasing levels of obesity, for example, could lead these figures to reverse if people do not continue to be educated about the importance of their health and the risks associated with poor general health.
There is no sure fire way to avoid dementia but, like many later life health conditions, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. One of the most significant causes of dementia is high blood pressure, so anything you can do to maintain a healthy blood pressure could help keep dementia at bay. For example, sticking to a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg, exercising regularly and keeping your weight in check will all contribute to a healthy body and brain, making you less susceptible to dementia in later years. Similarly, smoking and drinking can lead to high blood pressure so these are best avoided or enjoyed in moderation.
It is also thought that keeping your brain active and stimulated may help reduce dementia risk. It has been suggested that regularly doing word games and number puzzles can help to keep your mind active and therefore at lower risk of degenerative brain conditions – and of course, there are plenty of apps and pieces of software available to help you with this. Though it is true that at this point there is still very little research to support this, and so the potential benefits are becoming a slightly contentious issue.
Dementia care in the UK
Dementia care in the UK falls to a range of different people and organisations. Some NHS hospitals have their own specific dementia wards and dedicated occupational therapists to work with patients. Many dementia sufferers are cared for at least in part by family members or live in private care homes.
The Alzheimer’s Society is campaigning to improve dementia care in the UK by demonstrating that it is an increasing need as the population of older people continues to grow. They want all NHS hospitals to recognise this need and work to provide suitable care for those who are admitted into their care with dementia. They are also campaigning for a more person-centred approach and a reduction in the use of anti-psychotic drugs on dementia wards. Read more about their campaign here.
If the onset of dementia causes financial problems, it is sometimes possible to borrow against the cash value of an existing life insurance policy. In the case of terminal illness some policies will also allow you to receive a partial payout on your policy to support you ahead of your death. If you are interested in either of these options you should check the conditions of your policy or speak to your policy provider. To set up life cover for the future you can evaluate different providers online.
Other financial support is available in the form of a Disability Living Allowance for under 65s or an Attendance Allowance for over 65s. Both of these benefits are non-means tested and you can apply by collecting a form from your local benefits office. If you are a carer for someone with dementia you may be entitled to a Carers Allowance from the Government. Increased support for carers is another thing that the Alzheimer’s Society is campaigning to improve.
Although dementia seems to be decreasing in the UK, it still affects many thousands of people and preventative actions, such as a maintaining good general health and low blood pressure, are essential. For more information and advice about dementia, see your GP or look up The Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia UK and Age UK.