Renowned broadcaster and journalist Angela Rippon explains why Newcastle University's research into dementia is so important
Angela Rippon OBE is a renowned journalist, television presenter and household name, who has received many accolades throughout her career. Since 2009 she has been an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society, campaigning to improve society’s understanding of dementia and inclusivity and quality of life for people living with dementia. More recently, in 2014 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Newcastle University for her advocacy and support of the University’s research into ageing. David-John Mather chatted to Angela about her campaign work, her own family experiences and the importance of the University’s research.
‘One of the biggest challenges I have encountered has been in trying to diminish the stigma attached to dementia,’ says Angela Rippon. ‘For so long people have misunderstood the condition, and as a result there has been a real fear attached to it. When I first became an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society, a journalist asked if I was embarrassed to talk about dementia in public. They completely misunderstood what it was and thought anyone discussing it in public must be embarrassed to do so.’
Angela was compelled to learn more about dementia after her mother, Edna, was diagnosed with the condition. ‘I didn’t have any knowledge of dementia at all,’ she recalls. ‘As my mother’s condition developed, her character changed and we would have terrible arguments. But once she was diagnosed, it suddenly opened up a whole new world of understanding. For a lot of people who have no experience of dementia – including myself – it’s a very sharp learning curve.’
When she learned of her mother’s diagnosis, Angela’s journalistic instincts took over. ‘I discovered I knew absolutely nothing about it,’ she says. ‘Dementia is actually a physical illness which occurs when brain cells die off, but many people didn’t understand what having dementia meant or what the illness involved. As a result, people with dementia were terribly misunderstood by society.’
Research at Newcastle University into early intervention for dementia, end-of-life care and assistive technologies is led by Professor Louise Robinson, Director of Newcastle University Institute for Ageing (NUIA). This research helped shape the Prime Minister’s National Dementia Challenge in 2012. As part of this, Angela co-chairs the Dementia Friendly Communities Champion Group, which leads discussions on how to create communities that support people living with dementia.
‘In the UK, around one in three of us is touched by dementia in some way, either because a member of the family or someone we know or work with has dementia or is connected to someone who does,’ says Angela. ‘That’s a huge proportion of the population.’
Not only has Professor Robinson’s research helped shape the UK government’s policies, but it has also enabled NHS services to provide a more timely diagnosis and improve the quality of care for people living with dementia. Angela agrees that this early intervention is vital: ‘Early intervention can help you live better with the condition,’ she says. ‘An early diagnosis gives you an opportunity to slow down the development of the disease, opening up the possibility of getting medical and social support.’
NUIA’s research into the quality of care recognises the importance of the patients’ voices too. ‘It’s absolutely critical,’ says Angela. ‘Everything we do at the Alzheimer’s Society and the various committees I serve on involves people who are living with dementia. They’re the experts; they know what it’s like so they know what they need and what they want to achieve.
‘Support for carers is absolutely vital too,’ she adds. ‘If you’re a carer who understands dementia, you’re able to give your loved ones the kind of support that enables them to live well with the condition. Carers can become stressed, tired and anxious, so we always make sure we talk about people with dementia and their carers. You have to look after both and not just one of them.’
Today, with world-class academic research, changes within the medical profession and a shift in public attitudes, there is a more collective approach to the challenge of tackling dementia than ever before.
‘There’s a quote I often use, which is “Dementia is one of the greatest medical and societal challenges of the twenty-first century and it’s a challenge that requires a whole society response”. It’s that combined approach, from the medical profession, from academia, and the attitude from young people, which is making the difference. The whole approach to dementia is much more joined up,’ explains Angela. ‘Things are getting better, but we still have so much to do.’
Despite recent progress, dementia continues to pose a significant challenge to healthcare systems and communities. Moving forward, NUIA is pursuing the biological, medical and psychosocial determinants of ageing to support healthy lifestyles and active ageing. ‘NUIA has been doing some amazing work,’ says Angela. ‘The research they are doing on the impact dementia has on people living with it, society and carers, is making such a difference.'
Newcastle University Institute for Ageing is a response to the University’s societal challenge of ageing and Angela is one of the Institute’s most familiar advocates. The Institute is seeking new ways to maximise the extensive opportunities associated with human longevity, as well as the challenges arising from an ageing population.
For further information about Newcastle University Institute for Ageing, please visit: www.ncl.ac.uk/ageing
You can also read more about Professor Robinson’s research at: www.ncl.ac.uk/impact/preventingdementia
This feature appeared in Arches, the Newcastle University Alumni magazine.
published on: 17 August 2015