Prime Minister Boris John has promised to double government research funding to £160 million a year by 2024, and is calling for volunteers to sign up for clinical trials into dementia therapies. The Prime Minister said he has launched the new national mission in memory of the late Dame Barbara Windsor, who died of Alzheimer’s, aged eighty-three, in a London care home.
But as desperate as we are for a drug that cures or slows down the disease, is this new funding just throwing more money down a deep, unproductive black hole? Over the past twenty years drug trials have consistently failed, yet the incidence, new cases of dementia are dropping in the Western world in response to better education and healthcare.
The government press release said, ‘The mission will be driven by a new taskforce, bringing together industry, the NHS, academia, and families living with dementia. By speeding up the clinical trial process, more hypotheses and potential treatments can be tested for dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. The taskforce will build on the success of the Covid Vaccine Taskforce led by Kate Bingham.’ £95 million in funding will be ringfenced to support the national mission, boosting the number of clinical trials and research projects. ‘
The possibility of ‘more hypotheses’ will be welcomed by scientists who say that research has been stifled by influential figures with a single focus on protein deposits in the brain (the amyloid-B hypothesis). A growing number of scientists say this is the reason there is no treatment for Alzheimer’s. ‘Research focused on amyloid, and the development and testing of experimental drugs targeting it, have sucked up billions of dollars in government, foundation, and pharma funding with nothing to show for it.’ (See https://www.statnews.com/2019/06/25/alzheimers-cabal-thwarted-progress-toward-cure/)
And likening dementia research, which involves quite long clinical trials, to the success of the Covid Vaccine Taskforce is missing a crucial point: the speed with which the vaccine was produced was possible because so much was already known about the SARs virus, but the causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s are still a mystery. Also, dementia can affect the brain years before there are any symptoms, which means treatments need to be tested on people far earlier.
The moon-shot aim of pharmaceutical companies is a pill that can be taken by everyone to prevent dementia, rather like statin against high cholesterol. But there’s been no success along this path for over twenty years.
Yet the rate of new cases is falling in the Western world without the use of drugs. Fewer people are developing dementia. A recent study by the Alzheimer’s Cohort Consortium shows that over the last two decades Alzheimer’s disease has fallen by 16% and other dementias by 13%. If this decline continues by 2040 there will be 15 million fewer people living with dementia. (See https://n.neurology.org/content/95/5/e519)
Improvements in education and health care in high-income countries during the 20th century have helped drive down the risk for cardiovascular disease, benefiting millions of aging brains, say researchers and authors Daniel R. George and Peter Whitehouse. (See https://www.statnews.com/2021/09/23/the-brain-health-paradox-dementia-rates-have-fallen-even-as-drugs-have-failed/)
Professor Carol Brayne, Public Health Institute Cambridge, questions whether there should be more investment in public health, rather than pharmaceuticals. ‘Remember we are talking about a generation which experienced substantial post-war investments in education and socialised healthcare, and a partial reduction in social inequalities as a result,’ she wrote. ‘If it has worked thus far, the same kind of approach might be the best way forward for the future.’ (See https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/despite-the-headlines-dementia-epidemic-may-not-actually-be-getting-worse)
An exceptionally large study for Japan, which has the world’s oldest population, showed that problems of ageing, including frailty and dementia, were a matter of health gaps over the course of people’s lives. For example, the research highlighted that women with a less than high school education aged seventy-five or over were more likely to be affected. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/04/220427115813.htm)
And a growing body of research shows that changes in lifestyles delays or prevents the onset of dementia. A classic example is the ‘Caerphilly Study,’ the 35-year-old study of men in a Welsh valley where those who stuck to healthy life such styles saw a 60% reduction in dementia. (See https://www.healthwisewales.gov.wales/research/story/the-caerphilly-cohort-study/)
We know what we should pay attention to, in order to prevent dementia. As well as physical wellbeing, the latest to emerge strongly is education, and mental health. Stress, feelings of loneliness, and depression increase our vulnerability to dementia. For those of us who love Jesus, there’s balm in the Scriptures, particularly in the Psalms. They were written by people equally as prone to emotional and mental stress as we are.
We pray for integrity and success in dementia research and clinical trials and at the same time continue to do what has been proven to work!