Dementia Research will Change the Future
Today, over a million people in the UK are living with dementia and related neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease (MND).
The impact of these incurable and progressive conditions on individuals and their families is devastating. Societal costs, too, are staggering, and growing as the population ages.
As a neurologist, I have spent my career delivering bleak news with no prospect of treatment. But this is about to change.
Due to spectacular advances in our understanding of the biology of neurodegenerative conditions, research into these diseases is at a tipping point, with the next decade promising to deliver transformative breakthroughs in treatments, and a new era of predictive, preventative and precision medicine for neurodegeneration.
The UK is playing a leading role in this revolution, due to its strengths in the “discovery science” and “delivery science” of neurodegenerative diseases, led by the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) and linked cross-sector partnerships with the NHS, industry, our world class universities, and excellence in AI-digital-data science.
To capitalise on this generational opportunity that will deliver major economic as well as health gains requires continued UK Government leadership and sustainable investment in the UK dementia ecosystem. If, as a country, we get this right, we will be able to address two UK priorities: maintain health in an ageing society and cement the UK’s global life science and frontier leadership in dementia research, whilst levelling up and driving inward investment.
We are at an exciting inflection point in the field. Take, for example, the recent discovery of two new drugs, which have been hailed as breakthroughs against Alzheimer’s disease. Lecanemab and donanemab both work by removing toxic “amyloid” proteins from the brain, slowing down cognitive decline. The drugs are not perfect, and they only represent the very beginning of what science can achieve. But their significance is incalculable. For the first time, we have unequivocally demonstrated that the diseased ageing brain can be treated. The only question is whether the UK will be in the vanguard or a late adopter.
Tomorrow’s neurologists will make faster and better diagnoses, and offer personalised prevention, intervention and care, which collectively will reduce existing health inequalities in outcomes and improve healthspan. The implications for wellbeing into old age are obvious. The ability to identify people at risk of developing dementia opens the possibility of prevention akin to taking cholesterol and blood pressure lowering tablets for heart disease. New drugs could mean many years of preserved cognition, improved wellbeing, and enhanced quality of life. I can’t think of anything that would more profoundly impact our conception of ageing. This is about adding life to years, not just years to life.
The challenge now is making the right investment to capitalise on these scientific successes to realise the promise of research, not just to save lives but to transform lives.
Dementia costs the UK £35bn per year, equivalent to about a fifth of the NHS budget. Over three quarters of that amount represents care costs; both social care services and lost productivity due to unpaid care. If we can reduce our reliance on care into old age, the economic impact will be significant.
Consider, too, the potential to protect our public services. People living with dementia are disproportionately likely to be hospitalised, with c.1 in 4 NHS hospital beds is occupied by somebody with dementia. Research can help here too. The UK DRI and partners are leading the way in harnessing digital innovation and transformation at all points on the care pathway, from disease prediction to at-home disease monitoring and delivery of clinical trials. Specifically, the UK DRI has expertise in behavioural monitoring technologies (developed at our Centre for Care Research and Technology) to develop an entirely new model of high-quality care provision in people’s homes. Promising early results have already shown that our approach prevents hospitalisations and enables people with dementia to live independently and safely in their own home for longer. Combining innovative care models like this with new medicines that slow neurodegeneration, we can dramatically reduce the impact of dementia on social care services and our NHS.
Dementia research already benefits the UK economy, generating £2.59 for every £1 invested. But we have seen in other disease areas that early signs of success catalyse investment and accelerate innovation and change. Take multiple sclerosis, which barely two decades ago was considered untreatable. Change began with early evidence of benefit with the beta interferon class of drugs. This led to an avalanche of investments from pharmaceutical companies and venture capital, which has spawned multi-billion-dollar drug franchises. Today, there are more than a dozen effective disease-modifying treatments available to the newly diagnosed patient. Dementia today is where MS was. With the right Government investment now, the UK can and should be a global beacon for innovation, transformation and change for diseases too long feared.
Scientists are driven to solve problems. But dementia research is about so much more than scientific curiosity. It is a profound investment into our future wellbeing, our national economy, and – as our population ages – the very fabric of our society. With the right investment, dementia research could give us the opportunity to entirely rethink how we age in the future. And with the UK’s existing scientific strengths, and exciting breakthroughs now beginning to emerge, this is certainly a bet the Government should take.
The UK DRI’s principal funder is the Medical Research Council. You can learn more at UK Dementia Research Institute.
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