For the first time, dementia has jumped to the top of the agenda with the unveiling yesterday of the UK’s first ever national strategy to tackle what the government terms “one of the great challenges now facing society”.

Neil Hunt, who heads up the Alzheimer’s Society and has been pivotal in pushing the government for better care in dementia, said the move represents “a pivotal moment” and added that “for too long dementia has been at the bottom of health and social care pile. This announcement by our new government represents a real step forward in policy towards dementia.”

The government currently invests, it says, some £3.3 billion every year in dementia services but has identified three areas where improvements are called for. These are, firstly, to raise the disease’s profile and create greater awareness, taking the stigma out of dementia and enabling family members to identify early signs and symptoms so patients are referred quickly. Secondly, the report calls for early diagnosis by clinicians so that families can receive appropriate support and, thirdly, to improve services so that people receive treatment and support to maximize quality of life.

...but all eyes on forthcoming High Court decision

It is this last point that may trigger some level of cynicism amongst those in the pharmaceutical industry as the sector awaits Friday’s High Court decision on whether government watchdog the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence was right not to recommend the use of the only approved treatments for Alzheimer’s – the acetyl cholinesterase inhibitors – on the National Health Service.

But with this new strategy, the government has signalled its intentions to take dementia more seriously. The announcement also chimes with a recent National Audit Office report that said better support for sufferers would result in considerable cost savings and improved care; the disease currently costs the UK economy £14.3 billion a year.

Meanwhile, Hunt has cautioned that the task ahead in creating a national strategy is “huge”, with more than 600,000 people believed to suffer from dementia in England alone, of which more than half will never receive a formal diagnosis. In less than 20 years it is forecast that over 1 million people will have dementia.

And Health Minister Ivan Lewis concurred, adding: "The scale of our ambition must now meet the scale of the challenge as demographic realities mean dementia will impact on an increasing number of families in our society. The current system is failing too many dementia sufferers and their carers".

The strategy’s development will be led by Professor Sube Banjeree, professor of mental health and ageing at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, and Jenny Owen, Executive Director of Adults, Health and Community Wellbeing in Essex and Joint Chair of the ADASS Older People's Committee. They will work within a stakeholder group led by the Alzheimer’s Society’s Hunt.

Ministers will announce a transformation plan to ensure dementia services are improved in all parts of the country by the summer of 2008.