The treatment of dementia in the UK is still not being seen as a priority and patients and better support for sufferers would result in considerable cost savings and better care, according to a new report.

The National Audit Office has published a report, entitled Improving services and support for people with dementia, looks at the human and economic cost of the condition and pulls few punches. It points out that dementia “has not received the priority status from the [Health] department, the NHS or social care that it deserves” and has “suffered historically from poor awareness and understanding”.

The NAO notes that there is a widely held perception that little can be done and a lack of urgency has been attached to diagnosing and treating the condition. “Parallels can be drawn between dementia now and cancer in the 1950s, when there were few treatments and patients were commonly not told the diagnosis for fear of distress,” it adds.

The study goes on to say that at least 560,000 people in England have dementia and, because of an ageing population, the number of cases is predicted to rise by over 30% over the next 15 years. It accounts directly for 3% of all deaths, but four times as many people actually may die with dementia and it costs the economy £14.3 billion a year. “Early diagnosis and intervention in cases of dementia is known to be cost-effective,” states the NAO report, yet only a third to a half of people with dementia ever receive a formal diagnosis and the UK is in the bottom third of countries in Europe in terms of the percentage of patients receiving anti-dementia drugs.

Worryingly, less than two-thirds of GPs surveyed by the NAO felt that it was important to look actively for early symptoms of dementia and only 31% felt they had enough training to diagnose and manage the disease. Half of the UK’s Community Mental Health Teams surveyed said that they felt acute hospital nurses were inadequately trained in dementia needs.

The head of the NAO, Sir John Bourn, said that the report “shines a light on how significant an issue dementia is and how much scope there is to improve the way in which people who suffer from dementia are treated”. He added that "our rapidly-ageing population means that costs for addressing dementia will continue to increase and, without redesign, services for people with dementia are likely to become increasingly inconsistent and unsustainable. Dementia can no longer be set aside” and “the issues raised in this report need to be addressed as a matter of urgency."

Cost of dementia cannot be ignored

The NAO report echoed the findings of a study from the Alzheimer's Society published in February which noted that dementia costs the UK £17 billion per year and questioned the government’s ability to deal with the problem. Its chief executive, Neil Hunt, praised the NAO for “this hard-hitting report”, adding that “the human and economic cost of dementia can’t be ignored – one in three older people will end their lives with a form of dementia”. He went on to say that “it is absolutely crucial that people with dementia get diagnosed as early as possible so that they and their families get the information and support they need”.

The NAO report comes just as the two-year battle to get the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to take a U-turn on its restriction of Alzheimer’s disease drugs to only patients with moderate forms of the condition finally reached the High Court. The case ended last Friday, judge Linda Dobbs reserved judgment and will give a decision in writing later, possibly before the end of this month.