However, despite public fears, work on finding a cure has been hampered by chronic underfunding, the Alzheimer’s Research Trust has warned.
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Sir Terry Pratchett, the charity’s patron, said dementia should now be given the same level of public attention that Aids was in the 1980s.
The Alzheimer’s Research Trust surveyed 2000 people and found nearly one-third were more worried about dementia than cancer, heart attacks or death.
The figure was higher in Scotland than the rest of the UK, with 37% of respondents naming dementia as their most dreaded disease. More than half of people are also worried about their parents developing the condition, the charity said.
And the Alzheimer’s Research Trust said there was a bleak outlook for finding a cure, with six times as many scientists working on cancer.
Research spending on dementia is far behind that of other diseases, according to the charity, even though the condition costs more than twice as much to treat. It estimates that £23 billion was spent on dementia patients each year compared to £12bn on cancer patients and £8bn on heart disease.
Dementia’s place at the bottom of the pile in research spending is at odds with the fear it inspires in those at risk of developing it.
The 37% of Scots who rank it as their biggest health worry compare to just 23% who named cancer first and 12% who had a general fear of death.
More than half (52%) of UK adults aged 30 to 50 fear dementia for their parents compared to the 42% worried about cancer and 33% for heart attacks.
Among retirees, 34% put health worries above money problems (33%) and 53% of pensioners are more bothered by the threat of dementia than of cancer or strokes.
Alan Brown, an Alzheimer’s Research Trust supporter from Motherwell, Lanarkshire, said he had seen first-hand the devastation that dementia can cause.
He said: “My mum Christina was diagnosed when she was 67. She’s lived with this cruel disease for 11 years now and needs 24-hour care. My hope is that one day I will see a cure so that other people don’t have to suffer.
“Dementia can only be defeated through research but it is desperately underfunded, so I urge everyone to support the vital work of Alzheimer’s Research UK.”
Dementia leads to a loss of memory function, language problems and general confusion among sufferers. The condition can persist for years, even decades, creating a burden for friends and family of the patient as well as the individual themselves.
Fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett said the true impact of the disease was often hidden from public eyes.
He added: “Alzheimer’s is a large number of small tragedies usually played out behind closed doors, so in spite of the numbers living with it, the world still doesn’t take much notice.
“When the world was shocked by HIV in the eighties, we saw a crash programme of research which has helped tame it enormously. We need the same kind of aggressive action on dementia now.”
Alzheimer’s Research chief executive Rebecca Wood said research spending was fundamentally mis-matched to the scale of the problem.
“Public concern around dementia is at an all-time high, yet dementia research is still the poor relation in both capacity and investment,” she said.
“Alzheimer’s Research UK is the country’s leading dementia research charity, and the public has helped us fund hundreds of top scientists, including a record £4.5m of grants last year, with over £600,000 in Scotland. Regrettably, charity and Government spending still lags far behind efforts made against other diseases.
“Dementia poses one of the greatest threats to public health. We need the combined efforts of charities, Government and the private sector to defeat it.”