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Revisiting the diagnosis of dementia: a response to Howard.

In yesterday’s online Lancet Psychiatry, Prof Rob Howard opined openly whether a group of frequent attenders at international conferences, living with dementia, were representative of that general population of those who had been diagnosed with dementia (Howard, 2017).

I enclose tweeted pictures of the article from the Lancet Psychiatry’s own Twitter thread here.


One point in Howard’s argument appears to be that the ‘frequent attenders’ run the danger of making other people with dementia feel as if they are not living up to expectations, in say delivering public talks to big audiences. I think it is easy to clear up here an important potential misconception – that these people living with dementia do not hold themselves out to be ‘representatives’ of the 48 million people living with dementia. But that is not to say they do not consider themselves as part of an important social movement with important international legal rights. And many people newly diagnosed with dementia, facing quite massive upheavals in their personal and professional identity, find (rightly) hurtful the accusation of ‘you don’t look as if you have dementia’. To which, the reply has been, often: “Well, please tell me, what does a person with dementia look like?”  It is this sense of otherness, or being different, which is a barrier to full acceptance and inclusion of people with dementia (indeed one of the criticisms of ‘dementia friendly communities’ is that it unwittingly emboldens this sense of otherness). But there is no reason to disbelieve that any of the frequent attenders has been given a diagnosis of dementia in the sense that bystanders do not have access to the detailed findings their respective clinicians have. There has, for example, been a plethora of articles on how nobody should be ‘diagnosed’ at a distance – including Donald Trump (see here).

It is proposed from the literature that dementia – or major neurocognitive disorder – by definition then seems to threaten the identity and selfhood of the individual at risk, leading earlier writers to see dementia as ‘the loss of self’ or ‘loss of the person’ (Higgs and Gilleard, 2016). I would contend that the identity further imposed as a high profile public figure living with a condition further adds to issues of personhood and identity unexplored, which become problematic if at any stage a diagnosis later becomes questioned (for example for lack of response to pharmacological therapeutic agents.) Recent approaches in post-diagnostic support have indeed tried to build up a continuum of the life of a person before a diagnosis of dementia and his or current life; for example, the process of ‘life story’ has been used specifically to enable care staff to see the person behind the patient; allow family carers to uphold their relatives’ personhood; enable the voice of the person with dementia to be heard (McKeown et al., 2010). It has becoming increasingly recognised that research on the experience of receiving and living with a diagnosis of dementia is sparse, and that people newly diagnosed with dementia arguably need a mechanism of understanding and making sense of the diagnosis to help them deal with issues of loss and to make positive adjustments to their lives through employing specific coping strategies (Lee, Roen and Thornton, 2014).

A regularly exercised statistic by people wishing to raise funds for dementia, outside of the mechanism of general taxation for the NHS or social care, is that dementia is the most feared condition in adulthood (Various news agencies, 2014). For example, in one poll published in 2014, a finding was that just under four per cent said they were frightened about getting a heart condition and less than one per cent were concerned about developing diabetes, according to a survey of 500 adults aged over 50 from across the UK who were asked which condition they feared most; two thirds of people over the age of 50 fear that they will develop the condition, while just one in 10 said they were frightened about getting cancer (various news agencies, 2014). The reaction of people receiving a diagnosis of dementia below the age of 65, so-called young onset dementia, is informative. Patients perceive changes in their identity while caregivers perceive changes in the caregiver-patient relationship. Both can experience grief, isolation, and stigma (Spreadbury and Kipps, 2017). Across European Union countries stigma has been found to influence late presentation to services (through the minimisation and concealment of symptoms), delays in recognition and diagnosis after presentation (through the belief that services had little to offer), and service response to dementia (through therapeutic nihilism and pessimism regarding prognosis) (Vernooij-Dassen et al., 2005; Jolley and Benbow, 2000).

In this recent opinion article in the Lancet Psychiatry, Prof Rob Howard, chair of psychiatry at University College, London firmly argues for the importance of listening to the lived experiences of people with dementia (Howard, 2017). But the line which really strikes you from the piece is: “Put bluntly, they are not a bit like the people with dementia that I have diagnosed and treated.” In English policy, the policy and care purpose about an accurate and timely diagnosis of dementia was so that people could finally have a coherent medical explanation for their symptoms, and that through various specialties could be enabled to live with the condition, along with other comorbidities. In this view, an earlier diagnosis is meant to be of benefit to a person newly diagnosed with dementia, so that clinical care planning might be initiated, including both pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions, as well as financial or legal guidance (for example, Rahman, 2017). In other words, the length of time actually living with dementia ‘well’ from the event of diagnosis is longer. But we do know this can be far from reality. In England, there has been much success in closing the ‘diagnosis gap’ amongst clinical commissioning groups (e.g. Fox et al., 2014). It has been long recognised that people living with dementia would often have to wait for a crisis late on in their condition or might enter a care home before receiving a formal diagnosis of dementia, and recent policy initiatives such as the Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge 2020 have tried to remedy this (Department of Health, 2015).

Whatever the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of people with dementia being used as ambassadors for charity in dementia, akin to brand ambassadors in marketing utilised by big corporates, the intention is undoubtedly well meaning. An international stakeholder group, Dementia Alliance International, is a collective of people living with dementia setting their own agenda for quality of life of people beyond a diagnosis of dementia ( The medical profession has tended to see people with dementia in the latter ‘stages’ of dementia (although the linearity of staging of the hundreds of dementias including the dementia of Alzheimer type is hotly disputed), so there is an issue with whether advocates living with dementia are ‘like’ people normally seen in clinic. People normally admitted to secondary care are ill compared to people living with a chronic long term condition in the community with health assets optimised and illness at bay. So it might genuinely be that the medical profession is genuinely unused to the idea of people living ‘well’ with dementia (the high bar that ‘living well’ is for all of us). These issues rarely get aired in public, but now is probably the time the discussion takes place constructively and openly.

Howard states explicitly: “I have no reason to doubt that these people sincerely believe that they have dementia and I hope in turn that they will not see this piece as an attack upon them.” Encouraging people to be fully integrated in the community to inspire others to identify themselves about being able to live with dementia in a contented way is, of course, precisely the aim of English policy in the ‘dementia friendly communities’. Howard is definitely not arguing that high-profile activists with dementia are ‘living a lie’, although phenomena such as the “imposter syndrome” exist. Cohen (2015) writes of the “imposter syndrome: “the fear of being exposed, that you don’t deserve your success, aren’t as good as others – and could be “found out” at any moment.” English policy, indeed international policy, in dementia combines an odd split personality where charities in dementia try on the whole to campaign solely on the dementia identity and yet try to convey that the identity of a person is more than his or her label of dementia (hence people raising placards in photoshoots: “putting the ME back in deMEntia”). The issue that activists in dementia at international conferences is that their identity ’as having dementia’ becomes emboldened such that, once public about their diagnostic label, it would be hard for them to become ‘undiagnosed’ without the potential for loss of face.

But I do think likewise that professionals charged with making a diagnosis of dementia should not be intimidated into not reviewing their diagnoses, when so much hinges on the diagnosis. We can all agree that the disclosure of the diagnosis of dementia is indeed a life-changing event. But a diagnosis of any medical condition has to be reviewed as further information comes to light either supporting or not supporting an original diagnosis. Symptoms vary according to how advanced the biology of a condition might be. To review a diagnosis of dementia is not to suggest that a recipient of a diagnosis of dementia is a fraud, or has deliberately misled a clinician, in the same way that a change of diagnosis should not immediately lead to accusations of blame or that someone somewhere has “made a mistake” necessarily. We know that some diagnoses of dementia, especially ones of people in younger age groups, fall within a very grey area where there is considerable uncertainty, where certain investigations can indeed appear normal such as the behavioural variant of frontotemporal dementia or levy Body dementia.

Howard’s well written piece I think is important for two further reasons, if one assumes that activists with dementia appearing in high profile are doing us all a great service. Firstly, the need to keep the diagnosis under review is in all of our interests. Accurate diagnosis of most diseases that cause dementia depends on post mortem neuropathological examination, and the mismatch between in vivo and post mortem diagnoses can be stark (Love, 2005). Secondly, the possibility does genuinely remain that these high profile people living with dementia, who seem relatively mobile and articulate, do represent an important subgroup of those people living with dementia. They could represent a group of younger patients who are physically active, benefit from social networking (whether virtually or in ‘engagement’ events), and keep their brains active. All of these are indeed recommendations in promoting ‘brain health’, or slowing the rate of decline of a dementia, as reviewed in the evidence comprising the recent Blackfriars Consensus (e.g. Lincoln et al., 2014). The mere act of packing a suitcase, jumping on a train or plane and giving a presentation might have a genuine therapeutic effect as yet untested through any randomised control trial for post diagnostic support for dementia. It is known that levels of arousal and motivation and affect can be major determinants of cognitive function, for example a boost in cognitive performance in older adults has been found after a bout of exercise (reported by Johnson et al., 2016).

As such, it could be that the original diagnosis of dementia was inaccurate, and would have been fulfilled though the diagnosis of ‘mild cognitive impairment’. Since its inception in 1999 (Petersen et al., 1999), the concept of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) has evolved. The original criteria for MCI focussed on memory impairment, but during recent years, they have been expanded to define subtypes, including non-amnestic (without memory impairment), as well as single and multi-domain impaired forms (Petersen, 2004). Efficient ways of identifying the ‘at risk’ population (conversion from any pre-dementia state to dementia) are required for larger-scale research studies (Ozer et al., 2016). Internationally there is no consensus on the proportion of people with MCI who ‘convert’ to dementia, and indeed it has become the nirvana of the pharm-focused research to identify such susceptible individuals early-on through sophisticated tests such as biomarkers (e.g. Bos et al., 2017). Looking at Howard’s predicament unconstructively, it could be that some of the people he identifies could or should be ‘ambassadors’ for living well with mild cognitive impairment, but the problem exists that there is no Mild Cognitive Impairment Society.  It is perhaps worth noting here that my mere mention of this reinforces a cliff-edge phenomenon between ‘mild cognitive impairment’, where being a mild cognitive impairment is unlikely to lead to as many doors for discussing your lived experience. And yet this difference between mild cognitive impairment and dementia is simply an artefact of how senior clinicians have desired to draw up the arbitrary criteria for cognitive disorders at any one time. Looking at Howard’s observation helpfully, it could be that this group of people shines light on a possible therapeutic window when a psychosocial intervention could most benefit people facing the potential prospect of a future diagnosis of dementia. But it is still indeed the case that people who are expected to be living with dementia will find their diagnoses being questioned quite offensive.

Clinicians should not in the business of undermining people, and I feel Howard’s piece is a long way from that. On the contrary, Howard, as a senior specialist in dementia, holds an important and valid view which merits scrutiny and questioning about assumptions about living with dementia, professional, personal or otherwise. There will have been many people to have benefited from a prompt timely diagnosis of dementia, but there will be some, unfortunately, who will have received harm from receiving the wrong diagnosis (harm for being treated for the wrong illness and not being treated for the right illness). We do not collect in England how many people received a wrong diagnosis of dementia, from having made intense efforts to improve the diagnosis rate, though there is now acknowledgement that this was a policy drive which may have gone too far. Like dementia itself, the various arguments are incredibly complex.




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