Every day, almost 600 people in the UK join the 850,000+ living with dementia, a group of symptoms that occur when brain cells stop working properly. Supporting ageing demographics and welfare reforms are two of our growth drivers at Legal & General and tie in with our focus on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Good Health and Wellbeing. With Alzheimer’s disease the most common cause of dementia, we teamed up with Alzheimer’s Research UK to increase education around the condition, better support the 52% of the UK population who know someone who has been diagnosed with a form of dementia, and reduce the economic impact of informal carers withdrawing from the workforce to care for someone with dementia. Never has this become more important: figures suggest more than a quarter of people who have died in England and Wales as a result of Covid-19 were people with dementia, while dementia death rates outside of the virus are at far higher levels than expected, suggesting lockdowns are exacerbating symptoms and profoundly complicating care.
A lack of understanding around dementia has led to the misconception that it is an inevitable part of ageing, when it is actually caused by pathological diseases. Yet this misconception, held by one in five adults, is creating dangerous barriers to funding, and subsequently finding treatments and even a cure, for a condition that is expected to affect more than 2 million people in the UK by 2050.1
We know there is a lot more the UK can do to better support the demographic that suffers most from the disease, and this starts with education. We’ve worked with Alzheimer’s Research UK to build the online platform Dementia Explained, designed to help younger people understand dementia, and supported the development of A Walk Through Dementia, a virtual-reality experience that puts the user in the shoes of someone living with dementia, which has been adapted and launched as a training package for frontline NHS workers.
To help explain that dementia is caused by pathological diseases and not an inevitable part of ageing, we funded the charity’s multi-award-winning #ShareTheOrange campaign, featuring Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Samuel L. Jackson. “If you compare the brain of someone living with Alzheimer’s disease to the brain of a healthy person of the same age, there can be a weight difference of 140g – about the weight of an orange,” explains Tim Parry, Director of Communications, Engagement and Brand, at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “The orange becomes a physical icon for the damage going on in Alzheimer’s disease.
There’s an expression about Alzheimer’s: it’s not a disease of old age at all, it’s a disease of mid-life that we’re catching far too late.
And it looks like education is starting to see success. A study by Harvard University shows that the risk of individuals developing dementia in Europe and North America has lowered by 15% since 2010, something researchers have put down to better control of cardiovascular risk factors. “It’s like the conversation that happened about 10 years ago around how healthy lives could improve cancer rates,” says Sara Heald, Group Head of CSR at Legal & General. “People are looking at their lives, choosing to be healthy, and it’s making a difference.”
Dementia has a devastating impact on the individual and their loved ones, and that’s what we really want to stop. But we know it has a huge impact on the economy too. So in 2019 we funded a report, ‘The economic cost of dementia to English Businesses’. This revealed that people reducing work commitments because of caring responsibilities cost English businesses £654.9 million in 2019, with complete withdrawals from the workforce costing almost £2.6 billion. By 2040, these same scenarios are expected to bring the total value of labour foregone to £6.3 billion.
On an individual level, a dementia diagnosis can have a huge impact on financial planning. “People spend their whole lives putting plans together for their retirement, and then dementia strikes them down,” says Parry. Breakthroughs in research, moreover, could go a long way in helping people who receive a dementia diagnosis plan for their financial futures. “Whenever you get a diagnosis, your first question is, ‘What should I expect?’. With dementia it’s so unknowable, and we need to be able to give people clarity over what’s going to happen in the course of their disease, so they can do their own planning – for their family and their finances,” says Heald.
“There’s an expression about Alzheimer's: it’s not a disease of old age at all, it’s a disease of mid-life that we’re catching far too late,” says Parry. The changes in your brain that lead to symptoms of dementia in your 70s are likely starting in your 40s or 50s. “If we crack early detection, that will unlock the ability to treat people much earlier,” he adds.
Crucially, what’s required is a recognition that the heartbreaking symptoms of dementia are caused by pathological diseases, and this means we can do something about it. “We don’t have to give into it and it’s not something we have to accept as being part of our future,” concludes Parry. “If both of those things can happen, the next five years could be absolutely enormous.”