Mind over matter

The Engineer

The population of the developed world is ageing. Across Europe the number of over 65s is expected to almost double in the next few decades, whilst here in the UK over 85s – the so-called “oldest old” – are expected to form five per cent of the population by 2030.

But whilst the news that many of us are living longer is heartening, a longer life doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier life.  Indeed, the older we get, the more susceptible we become to infirmity.  And as anyone who’s been following the news this week will be aware, of all the illnesses threatening to blight our twilight years, dementia is potentially the most devastating for society.

Around 44 million people worldwide are thought to be living with dementia, but according to Alzheimer’s Disease International, increasing life expectancies could see that figure increase to 135 million by 2050, and governments around the world are, it says, completely unprepared.

In an urgent effort to defuse this ticking time-bomb, delegates to the first ever G8 Dementia summit – which took place this week in London – agreed to increase funding aimed at finding a cure for dementia in all of its forms. UK prime minister David Cameron pledged to double dementia research funding from £66m in 2015 to £122m in 2025.

There’s a tough battle ahead if we’re to avert a crisis that many claim is almost inevitable, and as with most of humanity’s biggest challenges the outcome of this battle will depend to a great extent on the efforts of engineers.

One of the main issues in the fight against dementia is that symptoms don’t tend to become apparent until the disease is relatively well advanced, and by this stage the chances of any treatment having an impact is drastically reduced. Indeed, many doctors believe that this could be the main reason that a number of drug trials have failed.

However, if it were possible to detect and diagnose the illness at an earlier stage, new treatment would, many claim, have a better chance of working.

This week the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) announced £5m of funding for research into technologies that can do just this, and argued that quicker, more accurate diagnosis will not just provide patients with more time to plan for when their condition becomes more advanced, but could also enable them to get access to effective drugs earlier in their illness.

Engineers will also play an important role in helping sufferers of dementia live an independent existence for as long as possible. And in a move to hasten the development of the technology that will make this possible Salford University has this week announced the launch of the Salford Institute for Dementia.

Amongst other projects the institute  will be exploring the use of virtual reality systems to evoke memories and emotional responses. According to the Institute, patients in the early stages of dementia could be filmed talking to and embracing a loved one, and when their memory fades they will be able to experience the moment again in a 3D multi-sensory environment which could trigger the original thoughts and feelings. The Institute is also looking at the development of robotic systems that remind elderly people to take their medication and to exercise.

Such initiatives are vital if we’re to find a way of dealing with an illness that few of us are unaffected by. But whilst this week’s announcements are a step in the right direction, funding for dementia research still lags way behind other areas of healthcare such as cancer and many believe that politicians are burying their heads in the sand over an issue that will one day come back to haunt us all.

Click here to find out more about dementia, including how you can help