Emmerdale's current storyline featuring the village Vicar, Ashley Thomas, being diagnosed with Vascular Dementia is a brave one, but will surely go a long way to raising public awareness of this devastating disease and help dispel some of the stigma and misunderstandings that still surround dementia.
Mention the word dementia, and people tend to make an immediate association with Alzheimer's disease. But despite being comparatively little known, Vascular disease is in fact the second biggest cause of dementia in the UK, with 150 thousand of the 850 thousand people diagnosed with dementia suffering from this form of the condition.
So what is Vascular Dementia? And how does it vary from Alzheimer's disease?
Dementia is not a disease in itself, but the word used to describe a collection of symptoms that include both memory loss, and difficulties with language, reasoning and problem solving. Alzheimer's disease is just one cause of these symptoms but there are many others less well-known ones.
Vascular dementia is the result of damage to the vascular system of blood cells that supply the brain. A diminished supply of blood to the brain, either through a stroke or disease in the blood vessels, eventually causes brain cells to die which in turn leads to the dementia.
What are the symptoms of vascular dementia?
In the early stages of vascular dementia, the most noticeable symptoms tend to be with regards to concentration, slower speed of thought, difficulties with problem solving and reasoning and short, sudden bursts of confusion. Mood changes, such as depression, apathy and anxiety may also kick in.
How quickly does vascular dementia take hold?
Over time, a person with vascular dementia is likely to develop more severe confusion or disorientation, and further problems with reasoning and communication. Memory loss – for example, around names or recent events – will also become worse.
The decline could be on a steady slope with a gradual deterioration, or may be of a stepped nature with a sudden steep decline followed by a period of stability before another steep drop.
The speed and pattern of this decline varies, but on average someone lives for about five years after the symptoms start, and is most likely to die from a stroke or heart attack.
The team at Emmerdale are determined to bring a realistic portrayal of the condition to our screens. The Alzheimer's Society have advised screenwriters on the scripts and a dementia support worker has been on hand to offer advice to actor John Middleton, who plays Ashley.
Kate Oates, Series Producer at Emmerdale, comments: “Dementia is one of the biggest health issues we face today, whether being diagnosed ourselves, or through a member of the family or a friend being affected. John Middleton is a fantastic actor and in Ashley he has created a rounded, multi-faceted character, so although giving him this story was a difficult decision, as there is as yet no cure for dementia, we knew we were giving it to a safe pair of hands and know John’s portrayal will be realistic and deeply affecting.”