Britain seeks a million ‘Dementia Friends’

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Britain is seeking a million “dementia friends” who will be trained to understand the illness and help those living with it, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Thursday.

The plan is one of a host of measures aimed at dealing with dementia as the country braces for the side effects of longer lifespans. British government officials say a quarter of hospital beds are already occupied by someone with dementia; the number of people with dementia is expected to double in the next three decades.


“There are already nearly 700,000 sufferers in England alone but less than half are diagnosed and general awareness about the condition is shockingly low,” Cameron said.

The British numbers mirror global trends that are putting new pressures on health systems and families worldwide, as better healthcare leads to longer lives and more cases of ailments associated with aging.

Earlier diagnosis of dementia can help patients find ways to cope with the illness and reduce costs for care, health researchers have found, but stigma often steers people away from diagnosis.The World Health Organization estimates that even in wealthy countries, only 20% to 50% of cases are routinely recognized.

“Through the Dementia Friends project we will for the first time make sure a million people know how to spot those telltale signs and provide support,” Cameron said. The program is modeled on a similar effort in Japan, which faces a dramatically aging population. By 2015, the British government aims to recruit 1 million Dementia Friends through free “awareness sessions.” Participants will get forget-me-not badges to show they are knowledgeable about dementia.

“We’ll equip you with an understanding of dementia and how you can help, and the rest is down to you,” the newly launched Dementia Friends website says.

The effort will cost roughly $3.8 million. Besides launching the Dementia Friends program, Britain will also spend nearly $80 million to design better facilities and devote more than $15 million to expanding a biobank with thousands more brain scans to research why people develop dementia.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a joint news conference following a U.N. High Level panel meeting in London on Nov. 1. Credit: Leon Neal / WPA Pool / Getty Images