Action is needed now to ensure dementia research is not set back by Covid-19
It is vital that dementia research is not slowed by the pandemic, resulting in a further long-term impact on people affected. We must redouble our efforts to confront this dreadful disease head-on.
This week is Brain Awareness Week. It is an opportunity to mark the progress made by brain researchers around the world - not least here in the UK - in understanding the body’s most complex organ and finding treatments to the problems it can sometimes face.
The past few years have seen a step-change in our knowledge of the brain, and in particular our understanding of how things can go wrong. Dementia, one of the most common and devastating disorders of the brain, has for too long been seen as neither preventable nor curable. But after a decade of progress, we can say with genuine confidence that effective treatments are closer than ever.
The Chancellor has already announced his intention to further strengthen our dynamic research ecosystem and turn Britain into a scientific superpower. This continues a wider prioritisation of science and, in particular, dementia research, that has been pursued by successive Conservative governments. The flagship UK Dementia Research Institute was established in 2017 and we can now lay claim to having some of the best brain researchers in the world on these shores.
As good as it is to celebrate these successes, so too must we consider the challenges that we face.
Through my work as a GP and clinical lead for dementia, I have seen at first-hand the tragic impact of the disease. It is already the most common cause of death in the UK and its impact is only growing. 850,000 people are currently living with dementia, with that figure projected to rise to 1.6m by 2040. Regrettably, the human impact is combined with a significant economic cost, standing at £35bn a year and growing. Medical breakthroughs cannot come soon enough.
If we are to truly overcome the societal and economic costs of dementia, research must be at the core of our strategy
The pandemic has further highlighted the challenge dementia poses. It has been the most common pre-existing condition alongside Covid-19 deaths and each day we hear devastating stories about the impact of isolation on people living with the disease. Covid-19 is still a new threat, and whilst we don’t yet fully understand its effects on the brain, there are already indications that infection may need to be considered a risk factor for the development of dementia. Taken together, it is apparent that the fight against dementia has been hit extremely hard over the last 12 months.
Research provides much-needed hope for preventing and treating dementia in future. It is vital we ensure that research momentum is not slowed by the pandemic, resulting in a further long-term impact on people affected by dementia. But with severe funding pressures in the sector leading many researchers to consider their futures, as well as the ongoing disruption to research projects that Covid has brought, it is a risk. Action is needed now to ensure research, our best hope in the fight against dementia, is not set back.
The government understands the scale of the dementia crisis. The Conservative Party manifesto at the 2019 General Election set out an approach to tackle it. There is important work underway to reform an under-pressure care system in which an estimated 79% of care home residents have dementia. It is also essential that our commitment to make the UK the best place in the world to undertake dementia research, with a doubling of annual research investment, is not lost to Covid-19.
If we are to truly overcome the societal and economic costs of dementia, research must be at the core of our strategy. Delivering the ‘dementia moonshot’ research investment outlined by government has the potential to be a catalyst for that response. So, as we take a moment to celebrate the research progress made so far, let us also commit to redoubling our efforts to confront this dreadful disease head-on.
James Davies is the Conservative MP for Vale of Clwyd.