Dementia research is ’40 years behind cancer advances’

Dementia research is ’40 years behind cancer advances because of a stigma over calling it a medical condition’

  • Stigma has delayed kind of revolutions we have seen in cancer care
  • UCL professor says research into dementia is up to 40 years behind
  • Dementia patients have no drug that modifies the disease’s progress

EastEnders star Barbara Windsor, whose husband recently revealed her Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Dementia research is trailing 40 years behind the advances seen in cancer, leading scientists have warned.

For years people have shied away from acknowledging dementia as a medical condition – instead describing people as ‘doddery’ or ‘senile’, they say.

This stigma has delayed the kind of revolutions we have seen in cancer care.

Professor Nick Fox, director of University College London’s Dementia Research Centre, said: ‘We are starting 20, 30, 40 years behind cancer.

‘It was only when cancer came out of the closet and really hit the consciousness of the public and motivated politicians to say we must do something about this – that’s when things began to move.’

Speaking at an event to launch UCL’s branch of the UK Dementia Research Institute, he added: ‘Dementia has spent too long in the closet.

‘People didn’t talk about it, they said people were “senile” or “doddery” – they wouldn’t speak dementia’s name.

‘But now we are making progress in tackling the stigma – people are talking about it, it is in books, it is in films.

‘We will and we must find treatments – little by little we will make a difference.’

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Cancer has seen huge progress in recent years, with new treatments such as gene therapies, immunotherapies and high-tech radiotherapy transforming life expectancy and reducing side effects. 

By comparison, dementia patients are yet to benefit from a single drug that modifies the underlying progress of the disease. 

Part of the problem is funding. 

Cancer research in the UK received £310million in charitable funding in 2015/16 – 13 times as much as the £23million for dementia research.

Dementia patients are yet to benefit from a single drug that modifies the underlying progress of the disease

There are also four times as many scientists working on cancer in Britain than on dementia.

The Dementia Research Institute is run from centres at six universities across the country.

National director Professor Bart De Strooper accepts dementia has a lot of catching up to do.

‘There is 15 times more knowledge about cancer than about neurodegeneration,’ he said.

‘People say “why don’t you have a drug”, and it is because we don’t know enough about it. I see it as a mission of this institute, to move that position.’

The dementia field received major set-backs in the last two years when the leading contenders to become the first effective treatment for Alzheimer’s were shown to have failed in trials.

Professor De Strooper said: ‘People ask why we don’t have drugs, why are these failures.

‘I say these are not failures, this is learning, we need to do these trials because otherwise we will never move. Look at the cancer field – 40 years ago we were giving these kind of speeches.’

Professor Fox added: ‘We have to take encouragement from the conditions that were incurable. But we are starting from a lower base.

‘It will need a massive collective effort and leadership and inspiration – and that inspiration comes from personal experience.

‘It is not luck that there are treatments for cancer … We are going to play catch up now.’

An estimated 850,000 people in Britain are thought to be living with dementia, a figure that is set to rise to one million by 2025. Some 2.5million are thought to be living with cancer. 

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