Playing the numbers game

I write this blog on the cusp of September which is the 4th World Alzheimer’s Month, a yearly international campaign to raise awareness and challenge stigma. There have been announcements in August around prevalence that have kept dementia in the news, including this one from Alzheimer’s Disease International.

I’ve written before about my scepticism of dementia statistics. I am particularly wary of prevalence data and the dreaded ‘predicted’ numbers of people expected to develop dementia. I don’t feel the methodology behind many of these figures is anywhere near as robust as it should be, and whilst numbers make great headlines, I don’t feel they serve wider society well. In fact I’ve often wondered why we see so many statistics on the numbers of people predicted to develop dementia and yet so few figures for the numbers of services available, or the availability and uptake of different methods for living well with dementia.

Last time prevalence figures were revised downwards, I heard many whisperings of discontent from those who either work within or on the periphery of English dementia policy. It’s astonishing to consider that some people might not welcome such data, however questionable the methodology behind it is, but then dementia has been on an almost unstoppable bandwagon of negativity and doom and gloom headlines ever since the PM’s Dementia Challenge ignited unprecedented interest in the ‘D’ word.

The prospect that less people than previously thought may now go on to develop dementia in the UK is something to be applauded in my view, although I’m not convinced it has anything to do with lifestyle modifications being made by the population. I suspect these new predictions are just attempting to correct previously dubious data. I’d love to think that the population are taking precautions to improve their health by following preventative advice relating to diet, exercise and lifestyle, but I personally don’t feel those messages are anywhere near as embedded as they should, or need, to be.

Meanwhile of course, the Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) report paints a picture of increasing rates of dementia worldwide, and highlights how low and middle income countries in particular are likely to be affected by growing rates of dementia development in the years ahead. Without the health and care infrastructure we enjoy in the UK (however fragmented it is), not to mention lower levels of education and awareness, these predictions from ADI seem eminently sensible, albeit offering a huge challenge to the global community to try and offer people at risk of developing dementia, or already living with dementia, in these countries a chance to live a better life than they might otherwise have access to.

So how do we unpick all of this and become more informed citizens? A good place to start is by ignoring headlines that predict doom one day and a cure the next, and that play the numbers game by quoting figures that may appear very authoritative but in essence are based on what mostly amounts to some very complex analytical guesswork. In the same way that the rhetoric of loss associated with dementia and so avidly repeated in the media does nothing to help families navigate their way with dementia in positive and practical ways. The recent ‘Dementiaville’ programme was a classic example – if they told us once that the families featured were losing their loved ones to dementia they told us a hundred times.

Looking back, I suspect part of the reason why I was able to enjoy time with my dad in his latter years with dementia, and look back so fondly on much of what we did together is precisely because I didn’t inwardly digest statistics and negative portrayals of dementia. In saying that, I don’t for one moment underestimate the impact dementia has, it changed my father’s life and the lives of those around him in immeasurable ways, but it didn’t consume me. Living and loving and taking each day as it came was my coping strategy, not that I realised it at the time.

Whatever the rate of dementia prevalence is in the years ahead, it won’t change the fundamentals of living with dementia, and if cuts in social care services and our over-stretched NHS are anything to go by, whether the predictions of dementia prevalence are high or low doesn’t stop people being denied the care and support that they need. 

If anything we should to be less hung up on numbers and more focused on people. We also need to spend a lot more time and resources on those positive public health messages that are designed to keep people healthier for longer, and an awful lot more energy publicising and replicating some of the really great care and support mechanisms for dementia that a few people have access to but that many others do not.

Until next time…

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