When starting a new job there's always a lot to take in. Whether it's the organisational structure, a new field, or simply the kind of work you are doing, there's a learning curve to be followed.
My new job is no exception, and I'm learning some fascinating stuff. As well as getting stuck into the marketing side of my job, I'm beginning to understand more about medical research (a good follow on to what I did at Cambridge many years ago) and dementia.
One thing I picked up on pretty quickly is that Alzheimer's is a disease like any other - like cancer or liver disease. It is not a 'natural part of ageing' (though occurs more as people get older) and is not a psychological condition. It's your brain being affected by various things which deteriorate the brain and impair function. You aren't mentally ill - you have a disease. Big difference. See the picture I found on the internet? It shows you a healthy brain, a brain with dementia, and then compares the two. It's a real, physical thing, not a state of mind. Imagine if that was your heart, or liver, or kidneys...
The scary thing is the fact that with our ever-ageing population here in the West, it is going to become more and more prevalent - to the extent that 1 in 3 over 65 are going to have some form of dementia in the next decade or so. I'll be in that profile then. So will many of my friends.
So - scare factor? Well, I guess I am as scared of Alzheimer's as I am of cancer - but the difference is that the symptoms of dementia don't just affect the individual, they affect everyone around them so much more. I have a very good friend who's father has advanced Alzheimer's. The effect on my friend and her siblings, on his wife, on all of them - I could easily call it devastating. But for them it's caring for the person they love, even though he is not really with them any more. And at the moment there is very little that can be done medically to help. In his case, virtually nothing.
But people know about the difficulties of the disease, and mostly seem to understand the symptoms (and are often tempted to make jokes about something that really isn't funny for the family or the person with dementia).
I guess my take on this is that Alzheimer's and dementia has the public face that cancer used to have two generations ago when it was only ever referred to as 'the big C'. People didn't mention cancer, or talk about having it. It was a social taboo because it was so often associated with fatality. There are now lots of treatments for cancer and there has been some terrific work done to combat causes (like smoking!) and reduce risk. But it's still part of our lives and something people can talk about and discuss and help support individuals and families through. The taboo has been dropped. That's one heck of a sea-change in social attitude. But it is happening - slowly the Government are listening (thanks to lobbying organisations and individuals such as the amazing Mr Pratchett) and - let's face it - with statistics like this, it's something that can't be ignored.
So why isn't it like that with dementia? I think it's scare factor, because the disease affects behaviour, not just physical condition. People don't know how to talk to individuals with dementia - I certainly don't have any real experience; just a few friends whose families have a close member with the disease. And there is no 'right way' of handling it I guess - it's up to the individual, the circumstance, the stage of the disease. It's a case of adapting and understanding.
Changing the attitude of society will take generations - but in generations (as with cancer) we could very well make inroads into tackling the causes and symptoms of the disease so that families and individuals with dementia can actually enjoy a better quality of life. The aim is to one day have treatments and cures that will have a real impact. So much has already been done, what could still be achieved is hope for the future for everyone.