Defusing the Dementia ‘time bomb’

Recently, Professor Peter Piot (director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) declared dementia to be the ‘next global health time bomb’ and called on the World Health Organisation to add dementia to its top priorities in terms of funding research and treatment across the world.

Professor Piot is certainly right about the rising prevalence of dementia. The disease now affects 820,000 people in the UK alone and 25 million of the UK population have a close friend or family member with dementia. These are truly staggering figures and this is without even considering the reality behind the statistics, the personal experience of dementia and the emotional toll it takes on friends, family and carers.

But while the Professor’s ‘time bomb’ metaphor is useful to highlight the increasing incidence of dementia, his language also has the potential effect of sensationalising the disease; his imagery linking it with idea of destruction and devastation. We do need to increase awareness of dementia, but this should not be at the expense of stigmatising the illness, which adds to the distress for those living with the condition, as well as their families. Above all, we need to actively challenge the language that is so commonly used in the media when the subject of dementia is being discussed.

If you spend a few minutes researching the disease on the internet, which is something that a person newly diagnosed with the illness would conceivably do, you inevitably find news items such as a 2008 article from the Guardian with the headline ‘Dementia is a living death for 700,000 Britons’.

This particular article, which is predominantly about a woman whose husband had been diagnosed with dementia, is filled to the brim with sensationalist language and there is not a paragraph that does not contain some highly-charged phrase or other. For example, the journalist describes how dementia is a ‘terrible burden on families’ and talks of the ‘insidious onslaught’ and ‘inexorable advance’ of the disease. In describing the lady’s husband, the journalist talks of the ‘timebomb inside him’ that began to ‘lay siege to his brain’ and that ‘four years later his mind is on the cusp of untethering itself from its final mooring posts’.

This is just one example, picked at random, of many hundreds of articles and blog posts about dementia that are steeped in this kind of intensely negative language.

Of course, to level the charge of sensationalism at journalists would be pretty futile, when, after all, it is their job is to ensure maximum sales for their newspapers. But they do need to be aware that the use of exaggeration and other shock tactics can have a negative effect on people who actually have to live with dementia. This effect is particularly pronounced in the newly diagnosed, at a time when they are still coming to terms with the illness.

An important part of ‘coming to terms’ with a new diagnosis of dementia is accepting the reality of the condition, and this reality is bound up with the language used to describe it. So if someone has just been diagnosed with dementia and they read phrases like ‘living death’ and ‘ticking time bomb’ then they are bound to feel that there is no way out and that they are condemned to a life of misery.

But this is simply not the case. That is why at the Mental Health Foundation we are spending so much time working on how people with dementia can maintain as good a as good a quality of life and mental well-being for as long as possible and how things like self-directed support, involvement and participation, can help them achieve this (check our projects Dementia Choices and DEEP for more information).

So it is crucial that we move away from the image of dementia as a ‘living death’, and instead use language that is realistic but positive, and without resorting to euphemism. Above all, the message we need to get across is that people are ‘living with’ dementia and not ‘dying from’ it.