Building Dementia Friendly Societies

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Today's guest blog comes from Lilly's Richard Ascroft, Senior Director, Corporate Affairs and PRA Australia, Canada, Europe

This has been my first opportunity to attend the Alzheimer Europe annual conference and the only word that can accurately describe the event is 'inspirational'.

The conference kicked off on a day when headlines hailed the identification of a compound preventing neurodegeneration in mice. As someone who has spent 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry, these finds highlight the importance of ensuring the right ecosystem to allow research and development to flourish.

The study's authors pointed out the challenges of converting this find to a safe and effective medicine that would help people suffering from dementia. This is something that won't happen in government funded laboratories, but instead will come from the innovative industry working together with researchers in academia. This nexus of academia and industry is what allows these exciting findings to turn into medicines.

What I found inspiring about the conference was as academic and industry scientists search for treatments and cures for dementia, caregivers, healthcare professionals and advocates are already hard at work building dementia-friendly communities today. One of the fundamental challenges facing patients with dementia and society at large is gaining clarity from a diagnosis.

According to a report called A Future State of Mind: facing up to the dementia challenge, sponsored by Lilly and published by the UK-based Social Market Foundation:

"Surveys suggest that many GPs feel they lack the training, confidence and time to deal with dementia. At the same time, there remains a perception in some parts of the medical community that there is little that can be done for those with dementia, and that a diagnosis could do more harm than good, though for most patients this seems unlikely to be the case."

At the conference, Helga Rohra, chairperson of Alzheimer Europe's European Working Group of People with Dementia, made the critical point that we should focus more on the 'still existing functioning' elements of patients rather than only focusing on the 'end stage'. What a simple, yet powerful message. If only reluctant healthcare professionals could have heard and seen what is available to patients today. If only they knew about important changes that can be made in homes and tools available from patient organizations across Europe to help patients and caregivers cope.

The Joint Action on 'Alzheimer Cooperation Valuation in Europe' or ALCOVE, outlines key benefits of earlier diagnosis - right to know, adjust, plan, make decisions and also allow for the possibility of an improved quality of life with access to treatment, intervention and services. Some countries are making real progress in this area. According to Angiolina Foster, from the Scottish government, Scotland had diagnosed 64 percent of patients with dementia in 2012, this compared with 44 percent of patients in England having a diagnosis. At the beginning of the implementation of the Scottish national plan in 2008, these rates were roughly the same. So, it can be done, but ... clearly, an educational gap unfortunately persists. Thankfully, this is being addressed head on by advocates across Europe.

Beyond sharing insights with the medical community, one of the critical roles organizations like Alzheimer Europe play is educating policy-makers on what they can do to achieve the objective of dementia-friendly communities. While this is certainly critical from a patient and human perspective, it is also critical from a broader societal one. Unless more governments develop and implement pragmatic national plans to address dementia they will be ill prepared to deal with the societal costs that stand before them. Reports suggest there are currently 35.6 million people worldwide living with dementia. By 2030 the figure will be nearly 70 million. The total estimated worldwide cost of dementia was £386bn in 2010 and as populations grow and age, the pressure on services and budgets will increase.

The upcoming G8 summit hosted by the British government provides a once in a lifetime opportunity for world leaders to commit to working together and with a broad set of stakeholders to tackle this challenge. Building dementia-friendly societies is a complex undertaking requiring all stakeholders to take a 'wide lens' view rather just focusing on the aspects of care and funding that fall within their direct spans of control.

Having had the privilege over these last few days to interact with advocates and people with dementia from across Europe, I am convinced they bring the creative ideas governments need to face this challenge. We at Lilly are proud to be part of the dialogue and stand ready to bring our intellectual capital to help their effort.