Now that COVID restrictions are gradually lifting, what’s next for dementia research?
An opinion piece by Professor Alistair Burns, National Clinical Director for Dementia at NHS England and Professor Martin Rossor, NIHR National Director for Dementia Research.
During the lockdowns, many of the activities that we know are good for our brain health such as socialising, exercising and other cultural experiences were made more difficult. This enforced isolation – created for the very best of reasons – had a negative effect on people living with dementia and their families.
According to the ‘The Impact of COVID on People Affected by Dementia’ report by the Alzheimer’s Society, nearly half of those living with dementia said that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health and one in three reported having lost confidence in going out and carrying out daily tasks.
Rates of diagnosis
We know that rates of formal dementia diagnoses dropped steadily between April 2020 – January 2021, averaging 4,000 per month over the 10 month period. Although we’ve started to say those rates slowly increase in March and April 2021, they are currently 5% lower than the national benchmark diagnosis rate of 66.7% and above.
There are many reasons for this including the closure of some memory clinics early on in lockdown, and the reluctance of people coming forward for investigation – a belief that the NHS was “too busy”.
The good news is that although some research had to be paused, a number of trials continued during the pandemic, with researchers finding innovative ways of engaging with volunteers online. Our fantastic Join Dementia Research community played a key role in maintaining this momentum with over 16,000 volunteers taking part in dementia studies since the pandemic began.
New research will continue to raise new questions
Studies that are looking at the link between COVID and dementia and the effect of isolation on dementia such as the IDEAL project, will enhance our understanding of the impact of the pandemic.
The NIHR continues to fund valuable research in dementia particularly in under-served communities; areas where research has previously not had much prominence.
At the G8 summit in 2013, David Cameron – now President of Alzheimer’s Research UK – focused the international community’s attention to the growing dementia challenge. Commitments were made in order to turn the dementia tide by 2025 and a great deal of progress has been made, with much still to do. No country can beat dementia alone, we must continue to forge international collaborations and work together. The NIHR-funded STRiDE study which aims to understand the impacts of dementia in developing countries is just one example of countries working together to develop solutions.
There is no doubt that people with dementia and their families have lost out during the pandemic. But with the continued support of our volunteers, we hope that research currently being conducted will benefit people with dementia and their families now, as well as finding new treatments for the future.