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East meets Westminster: Longer life means tackling the dementia timebomb

16:24 15 November 2012

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt meets matron Lisa de Jonge on the Marjory Warren ward at Kings College Hospital in London today. The ward is part of the Health and Ageing unit which assesses, treats and rehabilitates the elderly. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 13, 2012. See PA story HEALTH NHS. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt meets matron Lisa de Jonge on the Marjory Warren ward at Kings College Hospital in London today. The ward is part of the Health and Ageing unit which assesses, treats and rehabilitates the elderly. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 13, 2012. See PA story HEALTH NHS. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

As Britons expect increasing longevity, Richard Porritt looks at the Government’s response to the pressing issue of dementia

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IF dementia was something toddlers suffered from there would be a cure by now.

But because it is most often older people who are cruelly struck down by this most horrendous of conditions, government after government has failed to tackle an issue which has now got to crisis point.

Figures released recently show that in women dementia is now the second biggest contributing factor in deaths in the UK – and by 2020 it is projected that this country will have more than one million sufferers. So now it is the turn of the Coalition to attempt to tackle the dementia timebomb.

It has been a busy period for the Department of Health with announcements last week focusing on dementia and earlier this week the unveiling of the NHS Mandate – a lofty title for a raft of suggestions which hope to deliver more with less.

Because of huge advances in medicine and care, people are living longer. And the impact of the shifting demographic will be felt in every walk of life and hopefully, finally, older people will get the kind of voice they deserve in Westminster.

It is sad is has taken an increase in over-65s for older people to be properly heard but more numbers means more votes. And more votes means more power. Of course the so-called grey vote has been courted before but such is the shift now that those who travel to the voting booth using a free bus pass will be listened to as never before.

And for many of those voters health – and specifically dementia – looms large. The Government’s Dementia Challenge document promises £9.6million for new research (it is a start but they are going to have to dig far deeper than that in the long run), extra support for GPs to spot the condition and a scheme to educate young people about the illness.

Health minister and MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich Dan Poulter said: “What is significant about this Government’s attempts at tackling dementia as opposed to previous campaigns is for the first time the Prime Minister has put his full weight behind it. David Cameron recognises the challenge ahead.

“The drive is to shift reactive treatment to proactive treatment. There needs to be strong focus on recognising the signs of dementia and getting in there early to help save memory and to fight the symptoms and the onset of the condition. We need to further educate people about what they can be doing to guard against dementia like staying active – mentally and physically – and managing their diet better.

“Now, finally, it is being recognised that although it is a good thing that people are living longer – due to the excellent care the NHS has provided for such a long time – with that also comes challenges.

“Physical health has improved massively and that will continue but there now needs to be this focus on mental health – there needs to be an equality between mental and physical health.

“And the education does not stop at patients and potential patients. Family and friends need support as well. Dementia is not something that is going to go away so now is the time to try to tackle it.”

Any attempts to tackle dementia are of course very welcome. But what about the wider NHS issues? The new NHS Mandate – a kind of contract between government and the health service – was released to a mixed reaction. Unveiling the plan Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed it was his “head on the block” if England did not become one of the most successful countries in Europe for preventing premature deaths. Nice to see he is thinking of himself. No, Mr Hunt, if the Coalition does not get it right now it will be far more serious than the loss of your job.

But – Mr Hunt’s rather crass statement aside – Dr Poulter believes the mandate will herald a change in the way older people are viewed across the board: “Often when I was a junior doctor I got the feeling that there was the view from some that old people were old and therefore there was not as much that could be done for them. But what we want to do now is get back to a cradle-to-grave service. That is why there are elements of the mandate that focus on the early years and the care women get when they are new mothers, and others designed to increase the dignity of people at the end of their lives.”

Let us not kid ourselves that this new focus on dementia and elderly care is prompted only by a desire to do what is right by every single citizen. It is also a grab for votes – this is politics after all. But those behind the plans are desperate for them to succeed - for a variety of reasons political and otherwise – and for that we should all be grateful. It is baffling that those with the most experience in life have for so long been maligned. Maybe, as the population gets steadily older, a new respect for those of advancing years will finally arrive.

The most important aspect of these two recent announcements is not the new cash or the “joined-up” [political speak for two departments shrinking and becoming one] thinking behind the new NHS Mandate but the plans to educate the young.

If those for who dementia is still a distant nightmare on the horizon can understand just a little of the terror the condition causes maybe this time the change will last.

Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt

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