Hilary Evans

CEO, Alzheimer’s Research UK

Why the search for dementia breakthroughs starts with changing perceptions

Dementia is one of the world’s great medical challenges. Around the globe an estimated 50 million people are living with the condition, and many will struggle to cope with the profound impact it wreaks on their lives and relationships. And surrounding those people are millions more family members, for whom the support they provide to their loved ones grows more difficult practically, emotionally and financially as dementia progresses.

For Alzheimer’s Research UK, one of the world’s leading dementia research charities, our focus is on biomedical research that will offer answers to these millions of people. We are committed to improving diagnosis and early disease detection, researching preventative action, and developing breakthrough treatments that will change lives.

But research doesn’t operate in a bubble, and as a fundraising charity working across society, we also have an important role in helping the public understand the nature of dementia and the potential of research. This is a big task. For generations, too many people have thought of dementia as an unavoidable fact of later life. Our recent Dementia Attitudes Monitor revealed that, in the UK, more than one in five agree with the (incorrect) statement that “dementia is inevitable”. Many more are unsure.

This misconception and doubt breeds fatalism. If dementia is perceived as inevitable, then what can anyone do about it? The reality is that dementia is driven by brain diseases, most commonly Alzheimer’s. These diseases physically destroy brain cells and the networks between them, and with this destruction, we lose our abilities, memories, and our connection to those we love. A brain affected by Alzheimer’s can weight 140g less than a healthy brain, and that’s about the weight of an orange.

But disease processes can and have been altered, slowed or stopped in the past through pioneering research. We are committed to achieving the same in dementia today.

Our third #ShareTheOrange campaign, featuring Samuel L Jackson, is launching this week. Legal & General have been delighted to support it financially for past two years. It’s a campaign focused on correcting misunderstanding and breeding new confidence in dementia research – we need people to share the conviction we have at Alzheimer’s Research UK that science will find answers to these diseases. But while the dementia research sector has grown, and strategies to find answers are in place, we need to build the scale and resources around the field to enable them to deliver the kinds of results that have made such a difference in cancer or heart disease research.

Legal & General have supported Alzheimer’s Research UK’s public engagement programmes for over five years now, helping us push on with our critical role of overturning outmoded perceptions of dementia, a task that we take as seriously as the job we must do in the lab. And two are entirely symbiotic.

In 2015 Legal & General backed an important new web resource for young people – Dementia Explained - to help them understand the nature and impact of the condition. As more people develop dementia, increasing numbers of younger people will witness the impact it has in their family, and our site helps them make sense of what’s happening. We also hope we can inspire a new generation of neuroscientists to take on the challenge of brain disease and continue the pursuit for solutions.

Two years ago, Legal & General also helped us to expand on our award-winning VR experience – A Walk Through Dementia – that offers users a first-person glimpse of what life can be like with dementia. The free app has helped us challenge the public to think beyond memory loss alone, and appreciate the many debilitating symptoms that dementia brings. L&G’s support has helped us build the app into an accredited training pack, delivered in partnership with Bournemouth University and Public Health England, to aid healthcare workers who interact with people with dementia.

Legal & General recognise that dementia presents a unique and special case for public engagement. They recognise, like we do, that every step taken to improve understanding simultaneously strengthens the case for research. Because understanding gets the better of fatalism and creates a society that rises to the challenge of dementia rather than accepting it as fate.

 Hilary Evans, CEO, Alzheimer’s Research UK

September 2019

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