This September, is the 7th annual World Alzheimer's Month, an international campaign to raise awareness and challenge the stigma surrounding dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other cognitive abilities which interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's is the most common type.
In Scotland, 90,000 people live with dementia and by 2020, there will be around 20,000 new cases diagnosed each year. My mother has Alzheimer’s and it is deeply upsetting to see a loved one become so vulnerable and confused.
Just last month, we learned that dementia has overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death amongst Scottish women, claiming the 4,384 women’s lives in 2017. This is a huge public health challenge and public services must respond to the issues faced by people living with dementia and their families.
Last year, the SNP Government published its third National Dementia Strategy, building upon excellent progress made since 2007 to improve the quality of care for people living with dementia and their families through earlier diagnosis; care co-ordination; end of life and palliative care; workforce development; and research.
Early diagnosis is central to Scotland’s dementia strategy. Everyone newly diagnosed is entitled to open-ended and flexible post-diagnostic support, coordinated by an appropriately trained Link Worker. Moreover, an early diagnosis means a person can play an active role designing their own support. In addition, the SNP Government supports Health and Social Care Partnerships to further embed home-based support, keeping people safe and sustaining a decent quality of life for as long as possible. This means supporting people with dementia throughout the entire health and wellbeing process, such as helping someone with dementia attend to their hearing, eyesight, and dental care.
The use of accessible technology can be transformative when living with dementia. Whether it is the simple adaptation of household gadgets and memory aids or the use of more cutting-edge GPS technology, the opportunities to successfully enable someone to live safely in their own home are enormous. The SNP Government is working with Alzheimer’s Scotland to help Health and Social Care Partnerships maximise the benefits of technology in designing care for dementia sufferers.
Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not just a disease of old age. In Scotland 3,000 people under 65 live with the disease. As part of the 2018-19 Programme for Government, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that free personal and nursing care will be extended to everyone who requires it, regardless of age. Known as ‘Frank’s Law,’ after the campaign led by Amanda Kopel, the wife of footballer Frank Kopel who sadly passed away in 2014 having been diagnosed with vascular dementia at 59, this policy takes effect next April.
Researchers are making increasingly important strides in improving the lives of dementia sufferers, slowing disease progression and working to find an eventual cure, if one exists. Last month, scientists at Washington University found that a non-invasive eye test could help identify people with brain changes linked to Alzheimer’s, potentially diagnosing the disease 20 years before symptoms show.
In last month’s British Medical Journal another study found links between alcohol consumption in midlife and later life dementia risk, concluding that abstaining from drinking or drinking over 14 units a week was associated with a higher dementia risk than drinking moderately.
As research and scientific advances continue apace, Scotland must ensure that people with dementia can lead a safe and dignified life, as well as promoting prevention and treatment where possible.
This Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, we can all help by talking openly about a disease which touches so many thousands of families across Scotland, and work to challenge the stigma and misinformation that surrounds this increasingly common condition.