The Frenchay Campus debate about an issue will affect almost all of us. By Kaytie McFadden
This is the full article from our printed issue available at all UWE Campuses.
On Thursday 3rd October, Frenchay Campus Exhibition and Conference Centre played host to a debate. This debate was about an issue which most would agree is not spoken about even nearly enough. A disease with which 820,000 people in the UK are currently diagnosed (alzheimersresearchuk.org). It is estimated that 25 million people in the UK have a close friend or family member suffering with the degenerative disease.
This disease is Dementia. A scary disease, the name of which brings forth heart-breaking images or wasting away in a care home, unable to remember the names of your children. The sad fact is that one in five people aged 80+ will suffer from dementia. With life expectancy increasing year on year, the issue of dementia, and how it can be tackled, is becoming more and more important.
The debate was arranged by BRACE, a Bristol based charity which fund research into Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The ‘Question Time’-style debate was chaired by the legendary Jonathan Dimbleby – presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ and one of the country’s most respected broadcasters. The five panellists came from a range of different professions and backgrounds – Steve Webb who is Minister of State for Pensions and the Liberal Democrat MP for Thornbury and Yate; Beth Britton, a freelance writer and campaigner concerned especially with dementia, as she helped to care for her father who suffered from vascular dementia from the age of 12 until he passed away in 2012. The third panellist was Zara Ross, head of care at the St Monica Trust, which provides high quality sheltered accommodation and care for elderly and disabled people. Seth Love is a Professor of Neuropathology at the University of Bristol. Neuropathology is the study of diseases such as dementia which affect the central nervous system. Last, but certainly not least was UWE’s very own Myra Conway. The Associate Professor of Neurochemistry and Dementia is currently working on research which is funded by BRACE, investigating the role of certain proteins in glutamate toxicity, which is a key contributor to the cause of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The debate kicked off with a question about whether people suffering with dementia are the responsibility of their family members, or the government.
The general consensus was that the responsibility should be shared. Britton called for a “joined-up health and social care system”; whilst Professor Love stressed that the love of family is very important and cannot be replaced by a social care system. MP Steve Webb discussed undiagnosed dementia and the difficulties of funding dementia research as “people are so tribal about their money”. Zara Ross took a different angle – possibly something to do with her working with dementia sufferers. She believes that there are several answers to the question of whether the government or families are responsible for care. Ross said: “People with dementia are us – ourselves, our parents, and our communities. Normalise dementia so that we can support those who are affected”.
The progression (or lack thereof) in dementia medication was also a topic given high priority – at the moment, there is no way to cure dementia, and no way even to halt its progression. According to Professor Love, “the prospect of a cure is very distant… there is not enough money in dementia research compared to the size and scope of the problem.”
The abnormalities in the brain which lead to dementia begin approximately 30 years prior to outward signs of dementia begin to occur. This statement led to a debate about whether early diagnosis was necessarily a good thing. There was worry amongst the panel that a diagnosis could lead to placebo-type symptoms, and individuals could start to deteriorate and lose confidence due to the diagnosis.
These were the main themes resonating through the 1 hour 10 minutes long debate. The key agreement for moving forward was the necessity of normalising dementia – speaking publically about it – removing the taboo associated with the word and treating it as the disease which it is, rather than behind-hands whispering about how ‘Uncle Bob has gone a bit funny in the head’. Jonathon Dimbleby told a touching anecdote at this point about how his father had been the first television presenter who openly came out and said that he had cancer, helping to remove some of the taboo from the subject.
The debate overall was very interesting and informative. It was an honour to have the opportunity to listen to some of the most educated people in their field discuss an issue which will most likely affect us all one day, if it does not already. Dementia is a tough disease to deal with, in both a medical and emotional capacity.
It is so important the break down the taboo surrounding the issue. We must be able to discuss it freely and openly, as it is only through this that we can truly address the issue; and ensure that the correct and necessary support is provided to carers. It is only through knowledge and understanding that Alzheimer’s and Dementia can be dealt with in an effective manner.