The government has pledged to reduce by two-thirds the use of antipsychotic drugs - the so-called “chemical cosh” -  in people with dementia by November 2011.

The pledge was made by Care Services Minister Paul Burstow, speaking this week at a Department of Health (DoH) conference on improving dementia care. He also also announced that the government will produce a plan on dementia research next year.

The Minister’s pledge was welcomed by Ruth Sutherland, interim chief of executive the Alzheimer’s Society, who pointed out that the drugs have been found to double the risk of death and treble the risk of stroke.

“Nearly 150,000 people with dementia are currently having their lives put at risk because of dangerous antipsychotic medication. A large-scale reduction in the scandalous levels of inappropriate prescription cannot come soon enough and we are delighted to see the government back up its previous assurances by setting a firm deadline,” she added.

The DoH conference also saw the launch of the National Dementia Declaration, drawn up by the newly-formed Dementia Action Alliance as the first step in a major campaign for change. The Declaration is “a national action plan to combine our reach, expertise and membership to defeat dementia. Out goal is a future where people get an early diagnosis, receive the help they need and, ultimately, where research delivers, a cure,” states a letter signed by 25 of the Alliance’s 45 member organisations published this week in the Daily Telegraph.

“With 750,000 people living with the condition in Britain, and the cost to the economy already reaching £20 billion a year, there’s no time to delay,” say the Alliance members, which include the DoH, the Alzheimer’s Society, royal colleges, charities, patient groups, companies and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

As part of the Declaration, each member organisation is making public an individual pledge about what they intend to do by 2014 to transform quality of life for people with dementia and their carers. These commitments range from adapting practice to better reflect the needs of people with the disease, increasing dementia-specific training and campaigning for a more prominent place for dementia on the policy and research agendas, says NICE, which adds that its main contribution is the development of a quality standard on dementia care, which was published in June.

The quality standard “sets out a vision of what high-quality care should look like for dementia patients on the NHS, and is underpinned by the joint NICE/Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) clinical guideline on dementia care and appraisals on medicines relevant to the condition,” says NICE.

It is estimated that a million people will have dementia within 15 years, rising to 1.7 million by 2051 as the population ages. “Dementia is more than a health issue, it's one of the defining social challenges of our time. We have to prepare ourselves now for the impact this will have on our society as our population ages,” Mr Burstow told the conference.

- Also this week, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) has published a position statement, entitled No health without public mental health: the case for action, in which it calls on the government to put mental health at the heart of the new public health strategy to be unveiled later this year, and makes a number of recommendations including an “evidence-based” approach to medication use.

“There is vast evidence to show that mental illness is associated with a greater risk of physical illness - and physical illness in turn increases the risk of mental illness,” said the College’s president, Professor Dinesh Bhugra.  “It’s clear that strategies to improve the health of the nation will only be effective if they address mental health and wellbeing as well.”

Responding to the RCPsych’s recommendations, Mr Barstow said: “the government is clear that there is no health without mental health. That is why we will publish both a public health White Paper and mental health strategy that will break new ground.”