11/12/2013 13:05 GMT | Updated 10/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Alzheimers Is Not the Only Dementia

The news is full of debate about dementia. A G8 Summit, here in London, is working out how to respond to the fact that, by 2050, 135 million people worldwide will be living with the condition.

That's a figure so large - more than twice the entire population of the UK - it's almost impossible to comprehend on a human scale.

It's more than three times the number of people who currently cope with dementia so, however we think about the effects of this debilitating condition and its impact, not only on the sufferer but on their family and friends and on society at large - treble it.

The trouble with thinking about dementia is that we feel helpless in its path. Any of us could develop it. If we do, there's not much we can do about it other than hope that we get the kindness, care and attention to allow us to reach the end of our lives with comfort and dignity.

It's scary and, as I get older, it's a possibility that I prefer not to contemplate too much.

But what if someone told you that 10% of all cases of dementia in the UK are completely preventable?

What if you knew that, if this dementia is identified early and treated, then it can be reversed in 25% of cases and sufficient recovery to allow a return to independent living in another 25% of cases (Smith, I. and Hillman, A., 1999) - that means that half the people who develop it can lead comfortable lives with little or no extra support?

Wouldn't you want to do all you can to avoid it? Wouldn't you want to make sure that - if it develops - it's diagnosed early and you have access to effective treatment?

What causes this dementia anyway?


Very few people who choose to drink alcohol are aware that they are risking dementia and - in particular - early onset dementia. Before I became CEO of Swanswell, a drug and alcohol recovery charity, I had no idea that one long-term effect of alcohol is dementia.

I always assumed that dementia was Alzheimer's and Alzheimer's was dementia, which is a testament to the magnificent work of the UK's Alzheimer's Society, and their sister organisations around the world, in raising awareness of their concern.

But Alzheimer's is not the only dementia.

Alcohol dementia, is also known as alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) and alcohol-related brain injury (ARBI), and is linked with Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff's syndrome. With all these complex names, it's perhaps not surprising that the direct link between alcohol consumption and dementia isn't clear.

However, research suggests that alcohol accounts for 10% of all dementia cases (Lishman, 1990) and another concludes that 12.5% of dementias in the under 65s are alcohol-related (Harvey et al, 1998).

But if you don't drink heavily, you're OK - right?

Wrong. Only a minority of people who develop alcohol dementia are stereotypical 'street drinkers'. In fact, the majority will have stable family and have been in employment. We're also aware that alcohol dementia is rising in younger people. Our youngest case involved a 27-year-old man and it is, increasingly, a condition of middle age.

In 2012, Swanswell took part in two fringe events at the Labour and Conservative Party Conferences to raise awareness of alcohol dementia. We heard from Donna, who shared her experiences of how the condition affected a loved one and the rest of the family.

Early diagnosis is essential, and when alcohol dementia is identified, relatively straightforward therapeutic interventions can make a huge difference. 25% of sufferers can recover completely and a further 25% can experience sufficient improvement to be able to live independently.

But early diagnosis depends upon awareness and if, like me, most people don't even know that alcohol dementia exists, we're unlikely to make much progress, are we?

So my message to the great and the good at the G8 is this. While you are debating the need for more and better research and treatment for dementia, please remember that there is a dementia that can be prevented, treated and reversed. At the very least, don't you think it's a good idea to let people know about that too?