Friday, October 7, 2011
Dementia: The grand challenge of the next 50 years
The Alzheimer Europe conference officially opened today with a lecture by a Professor of Mental Health and Ageing at King's College, London. He firmly stated that quality of life can be good at any stage of dementia, although to get to that goal, much work must be done. About 35.6 million people in the world now have dementia, a number that will double in 30 years (or, more pessimistically, according to a Delphi study done in 2005, it will be 81.1 million). A Polish neurologist followed up that lecture by arguing that we need to create a dementia-friendly society, although unfortunately, many people never get the diagnosis and either live in blissful ignorance, or suffer the "slings and arrows" of memory loss, never accessing the good programs in place to support them and the people who care about them. The second plenary session featured a German psychiatrist who offered an excellent "Dementia Microbiology 101" lecture with some of the best designed PowerPoint slides we've ever seen. He was realistic about the slow development of novel treatments to neutralize the events occurring upstream in the pathological cascade, events that now go unnoticed for 20 or more years before accumulated damage finally is expressed in forgetfulness and functional change. His last statement was heartening: instead of pitting pharmacological against psychosocial treatments (often somewhat pejoratively called "non-pharmacological") he firmly asserted that new drug treatments (e.g., immunization to build up antibodies against beta amyloid) will increase the need for psychosocial treatments as people will live longer with milder symptoms. A Polish neurologist followed that lecture with one on the genetics of Alzheimer's (delivered in Polish but translated through our headsets). The final plenary session of the morning by a Dutch sociologist addressed effective psychosocial interventions. She ended her talk with a Chinese proverb: We cannot prevent that birds of sorrow fly over, but we can prevent that they build nests in our hair.
We had a delightful (free) and delicious lunch with 4 people from Ireland, 2 young Poles, and two women from Turkey. Our lively table conversation careened through a number of topics. We still have not met anyone from the US.
We split up to attend different parallel sessions in the afternoon, coming away from all of them with renewed respect for the creative work being done in many countries to improve quality of life for people living with dementia and those who care for them. Both the morning and afternoon sessions featured coffee breaks with many tempting sweets and enjoyable conversations. In all, each of us heard 10 different presentations in the afternoon, leaving us impressed and yes, a bit tired. A quiet dinner for two in the hotel restaurant that serves some of the best food we've ever had in a hotel restaurant gave us a chance to review the day and anticipate what will come tomorrow.