New attitudes to dementia would ease blighted lives
In theory our access to health care ought to be better than ever. Diagnosis and treatment has development enormously in recent years. Conditions that would once have been fatal are now treatable; chronic illnesses can now be much better controlled, their most serious effects on individuals delayed and their sufferers can live far fuller and more fulfilled lives as a result. Yet there are still Cinderella diseases that are largely off-the-radar. While very well financed charities offer research, development and support for illnesses such as cancer and heart disease – and are helping to bring about welcome breakthroughs as a result – conditions such as dementia, set to become one of the most significant health issues for an ageing population, get relatively scant attention.
Evidence of that comes today in a report in the Western Morning News that exposes the fear that nearly 50,000 people in the Westcountry have dementia but are yet to be properly diagnosed. Without diagnosis there can be no treatment and so the importance of putting a name and a treatment plan to a condition is vital. But while shortcomings in rural health care services continue, the problem can only get worse. Norman McNamara from Torbay, who was diagnosed with dementia six years ago, when he was just 50, summed up some of the reasons for what could be a developing 'dementia timebomb'. He said: "Geographically speaking, people find it harder to visit their doctor in rural communities." He wants to a see a culture change among GPs, to ensure that dementia gains a higher profile at the surgery and sufferers get a quick diagnosis and some proper treatment.
He compares the way dementia is considered today with the way many people – including medical professionals – viewed cancer several decades ago, with a shrug of the shoulders as if little could be done. Now it is widely recognised that many cancers can be successfully treated. Last week doctors declared testicular cancer was 'almost cured' with a 90 plus per cent success rate in treating sufferers. Mr McNamara's experience offers hope for many. "People are frightened to death by any type of mental illness but it is not just a disease of age and if you are diagnosed early enough you can lead a next to normal life," he said. He controls his condition with drugs and urged family members who notice relatives behaving oddly to persuade them to see a doctor and get an accurate diagnosis.
We cannot do much about the fact that, as a society, we are ageing and that the proportion of older people is going up. We can do something to reduce the impact of that change both by giving a higher priority to dementia so that money and effort goes in to researching the condition and by speeding up diagnosis so sufferers get help more quickly. Forgetful old folk may be, at the moment, a kind of bad taste joke. That needs to change if we are to help dementia sufferers and reduce the number of lives blighted.
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