There were several reports today regarding imminent trials of drugs which might stop the progression of neurodegenerative brain diseases, including dementia. Clearly good news, but predictably the media were rather excitable in their reports and the academics interviewed were much more cautious. We will crack dementia sooner rather than later – there is every possible motivation for individuals, pharmaceutical companies and research bodies to work hard on the problem: if you might personally suffer then you’re invested in prevention.
There we are a couple of things that I noted from the reports.
Firstly, there is no way to reverse any loss of brain function – there is no cure, and may never be a cure. That’s important because people will only present for diagnosis after some function has already been lost, so until we can accurately predict the disease, or detect it through routine scans while the symptoms are small, we will see a steady rise in the number of elderly people who need some assistance with their lives – but who can, with that assistance, continue to enjoy quality of life, independence and dignity. We need to figure out the best form of assistance.
Secondly, the lady I saw interviewed on TV, who is in the early stages of the disease, described her frustration over things as simple as not being able to remember whether she had brushed her teeth that morning. The goodness here is that the technology to remind people about daily tasks, and to prompt when necessary is already emerging. I’m not referring solely to Kraydel of course, there are numerous reminder apps which can be of value to those who are comfortable with smartphones, but beyond that we have the power to make devices like toothbrushes smart themselves. It can only be a matter of time (if it hasn’t already been done) before we have toothbrushes which buzz when you come near them if they haven’t been used that morning, or that evening. I used to mock the idea of internet connected fridges that ordered milk and eggs automatically when needed, but I wasn’t think about people with dementia at the time. Now when I do, I can think of dozens of ways to make devices in the home “dementia friendly”. What we must not do, however, is dis-empower people and teach then helplessness and dependency – reminding people to do things is good, actually doing those things for them is mostly going to be bad. This had to be pointed out to me when I was busy being a techie and thinking about all things we could do for the elderly e.g. lock their doors when they got into bed, rather than getting them to check that they’ve locked them, and providing some means by which they can reassure themselves quickly that the doors are indeed locked without needing to check again. And this last thing is a key part of the challenge – if someone can’t remember whether they’ve done something or not, then they have to believe that their environment is such that it won’t allow them not to do the things they need to do. Only with such (well founded) beliefs can someone with dementia be at peace.