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  • Sarah Whitebloom


It's been another busy week in the dementia scare story business. There seems no end of appetite for frightening articles about the condition. Indeed, we seem obsessed with them, but not in a good way. Dementia sufferers are emerging as the new lepers. Perhaps they too will be forced to go from town to town, ringing bells and wearing rags? That might cut the social care budget.

There is more than a little blame culture surrounding dementia. Suggestions are often made that sufferers somehow brought this on themselves or are deficient in some way - and are therefore, not really deserving of help. And we hear that 'they' are bringing everyone else down with them.

This week was a classic combination of both. We heard that life expectancy is being held back by dementia. It was thought we would all live to 120, but it now seems that we have stalled in the early 80s for women and late 70s for men. The reason: dementia.

Also this week, we heard that low academic achievement leads to dementia and lack of exercise can also lead to dementia. Tell that to 'two degrees' Margaret Thatcher or novelists Iris Murdoch and Terry Pratchett. Oh you can't, they had dementia and died.

Nevertheless, we were told that you need to keep fit and do the crossword and play word games for decades in order to avoid dementia. It is an epidemic, we are told, involving fat, stupid people who die prematurely and hold civilisation back. How selfish of them (ironic). Tell that to the actress Prunella Scales, who has spent a lifetime learning lines and delivering wonderful performances.

I have always been strongly impressed when spending time with dementia sufferers how many of them are, or have been, highly intelligent and active people. I encountered professors, national politicians, lawyers, doctors, head teachers, military personnel, leading businessmen, entrepreneurs, academics and writers. I also met handymen, gardeners, salesmen, taxi drivers, housewives, plumbers, health and safety executives and physiotherapists. And not a dummy or obese person among them.

It's a bit like Dr Who. The Daleks arrive in Surrey and, therefore, the world has been invaded. If we take a look at other countries, which are not suffering the 'dementia epidemic' and whose citizens live to a ripe old age, we might learn something. Japan has the highest life expectancy and, compared to the west, a low rate of dementia. Could it have something to do with the fact fewer older people are left in social isolation while Britain and the west casts off its older people?

Could it also be that dementia is a random condition, which affects people regardless of their class, fitness or intelligence. This doesn't accord with our current ideas on self-improvement or the moral superiority of the fitness brigade, but it may help remove some of the stigma from dementia sufferers.

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