An eye-opening report by researchers at Oxford University has revealed that the scale of dementia in the UK is much greater than originally thought, yet research into the condition remains woefully under funded.

According to Dementia 2010, which was commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, the impact of the illness on both the population and the economy is higher than ever, with the number of patients topping 820,000 – 15% more than originally estimated - costing the UK a breath-taking £23 billion a year.

The majority of these costs come from informal care (£12 billion) and long-term institutionalisation (£9 billion), while costs to the National Health Service are comparatively low - accounting for just over £1 billion - in contrast to other diseases such as cancer from which direct costs to the health service are much higher, the researchers found.

However, the charity points out that, despite the fact that each dementia patient costs the British economy more than the average salary and five times more than the average cancer patient, research funding for the condition (£50 million) is still twelve times lower than that for cancer (£590 million).

According to Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, the report shows that dementia is “the greatest medical challenge of the 21st century”, and should be “a wake-up call” for anyone who can “influence the priority given to dementia research: government, charities and the public as a whole”.

Wood claims that if a more proportionate amount of cash is invested into dementia research, “the full potential of our scientists in their race for a cure,” could be unleashed, and that “spending millions now really can save us crippling multi-billion pound care bills later”.

Also commenting on the report, the Alzheimer’s Society said it is “a timely reminder of the colossal dementia challenge facing the country”, and that “the failure to invest in dementia support and research means the UK is wasting millions on poor dementia care”.

But Care Services Minister Phil Hope said the government will sink almost £1.7 billion into health research next year, from which dementia research could also benefit, and he noted that the creation of a new ministerial group – which is due to meet for the first time later this month – “will help drive forward research into the causes, cure and care of dementia and help dementia researchers get more access to funding”.

Diagnosis gap

On a slightly different note, Dementia 2010 also describes a substantial gap between the expected number of patients with dementia and those actually diagnosed by family doctors, with only 31% of people estimated to have the condition currently on GP lists.

A key reason for the low rates of disease detection in primary care could be because of a lack of training and confidence in diagnosing dementia, the researchers suggest, though the government is already working some way toward addressing this through its National Dementia Strategy for England and Wales, which aims to raise awareness about the condition.