I Knew My Husband Had Alzheimer's -- but for Three Years Doctors Insisted It Was Just Stress; One Couple's Ordeal Reveals the Scandalous Failings of Dementia Care in Britain

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Byline: ANGELA EPSTEIN

THE consultant's tone was compassionate but his words to Shirley Ives were frank and to the point. Her husband, Mick, had Alzheimer's disease.

It's the kind of diagnosis that would leave anyone reeling with shock -- but Shirley also felt a faint pulse of relief. At last, after a protracted battle that had brought her to the edge of despair, the medical profession was acknowledging what she had long suspected.

Over the past few years, Shirley had watched her husband change from a bright, animated and capable man to someone who seemed confused about where the local shops were. But despite repeated trips to their family doctor, they had been sent away and told Mick had stress or depression.

'For three long years, we tried to get Mick's GP and specialists to listen to my concerns,' says Shirley. 'Now, finally, we knew the reasons for my husband's behaviour -- and could make plans, and see what could be done for him.'

This couple's journey to diagnosis has been harrowing, but theirs is far from an isolated case. A study by the Alzheimer's Society found that half of people with Alzheimer's will never receive a formal diagnosis, and of those who do, two in three will wait longer than a year.

They are shocking statistics, made all the more worrying when compared with other countries. In a major study in 2005 involving 2,500 patients, carers and doctors, to compare dementia care in European countries, the UK came bottom of a league table. Britain had an average time lag of two years and eight months between signs of Alzheimer's being suspected by carers and the medical diagnosis being made.

Delays were more than twice as long in the UK as in Italy and Germany, and nine months longer than in Poland.

Although diagnosis times may have improved slightly since this survey (which include the latest available Europe-wide figures), experts warn that Britain is still performing poorly in comparison with other developed nations. Indeed, on every level -- from diagnosis to treatment -- the UK's state of medical provision seems to be in a pitiful state.

A survey conducted by drug company Pfizer among 200 carers from six different European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK) found a majority of physicians recommended treatment at the time of diagnosis. However, UK carers reported this happened in only 51 per cent of cases, whereas carers in Poland or Spain said it happened in 86 per cent of cases.

'We're still a third world country in some respects,' says Dr David Wilkinson, consultant in old age psychiatry at Southampton's Memory Assessment and Research Centre, and a leading expert in the field. 'We're not as quick to diagnose, because other countries routinely use things such as brain scans and biomarkers -- compounds in the spinal fluid -- to test for Alzheimer's, which we don't because of cost.

'And while things such as combination drug treatment (prescribing memantine and donepezil together) is now standard treatment in France, Italy, Spain and many U.S. states, we're still lagging behind, as always.'

Last week, with figures showing one person is diagnosed with the condition every four seconds, the World Health Organisation called for dementia to become a 'world health priority'.

Only recently, David Cameron talked of the 'national crisis' posed by dementia, which is thought to affect 670,000 people (Alzheimer's accounts for 70 per cent of cases). A further 400,000 have not been diagnosed and do not know they have it. In the next ten years, the number of people with the disease is expected to rise to a million as the population ages.

EVEN the National Audit Office has warned the NHS must address failings in dementia care to cope with future demands. It likened the situation to cancer in the Fifties, when patients were not even told they had the disease due to a lack of treatment options. …