Paper summary: Attitudes to dementia 

This paper presents findings on attitudes to dementia in Britain. While the majority of people have known someone with dementia and knowledge of the symptoms of dementia is high, there are clear gaps in public knowledge of the risk factors. There is also evidence of stigmatising attitudes towards people living with dementia. 

Key findings

  • 52% choose dementia as either their first, second or third priority from a list of health conditions for doctors and scientists to try to prevent. 12% see dementia as the highest priority for prevention. 
  • The majority recognise the following symptoms of dementia: 87% recognise difficulty recognising people, 73% putting things in the wrong place, 71% feeling lost in new places.
  • Public knowledge of risk factors for dementia is considerably lower than knowledge of symptoms of dementia. 21% fail to identify any of seven risk factors correctly, while 43% identify just one or two risk factors.
  • Only a minority are aware of the following risk factors for dementia: 34% drinking heavily, 28% smoking, 15% high blood pressure. 
  • Around half of people agree that “people with dementia can enjoy life to the full” (52%) and disagree that “I would find it hard to talk to someone with dementia” (57%). A substantial majority hold relatively negative views about caring for someone with dementia. Only 39% agree that “caring for someone with dementia is often very rewarding” and as many as 71% agree that “caring for someone with dementia often means that your own health suffers”.


Public Health England (PHE) commissioned question modules on four subject areas (alcohol, obesity, dementia and mental wellbeing) as part of NatCen’s 2015 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. Forty questions about attitudes to dementia were asked, with 18 of these having been asked previously on the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey in 2014. The rest of the questions were developed by the BSA research team through a process of questionnaire design and piloting.

This paper explores the public’s experience and knowledge of dementia, attitudes to people with dementia and caring, help-seeking behaviour and dementia-friendly communities.

For 32 years BSA has been one of the most authoritative sources of data on the views of the British public. It has been carried out annually since 1983.1 The survey’s sample is selected using a random probability sampling methodology, which is designed to yield a representative sample of adults aged 18+ living in private households in Britain. The data is weighted to account for non-response bias and calibrated to match the population on the basis of age, sex and region (NatCen Social Research, 2016).

BSA 2015 data collection was carried out between July and November 2015. The survey was split into two sections, with most of the questions being asked by the interviewer in the form of a Computer Assisted Personal Interview (CAPI). A smaller number of questions were answered by respondents writing their answers in a self-completion booklet.

The overall response rate for BSA 2015 was 51%. The total unweighted sample for the dementia-related CAPI questions was 2167 people. The total unweighted sample for the dementia-related self-completion questions was 1827 people. All differences described in the text (between different groups of people) are statistically significant at the 95% level or above, unless otherwise specified.

Wider context

The term ‘dementia’ describes a set of symptoms such as loss of memory, mood changes and problems with communicating which occur when the brain is damaged by certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease (Alzheimer’s Society, 2015). Dementia is estimated to affect over 46 million people worldwide (Alzheimer’s Disease International, 2015). The likelihood of developing dementia increases significantly with age, especially from the age of 65, but younger people can also be affected. In the UK, there are around 800,000 people living with dementia, with the number predicted to double by 2040 (Department of Health, 2015). Although there is currently no known cure for dementia, there is a rapidly growing evidence base on risk reduction and protective factors which states that healthy living behaviours, such as not smoking and taking exercise, may reduce the risk of a person developing dementia (Alzheimer’s Disease International, 2014).

Dementia presents a number of challenges for the people affected by it and their families, as well as the statutory and voluntary sector services providing care and support. The disease is estimated to cost the economy £23 billion a year, a figure certain to rise as life expectancy increases (Department of Health, 2015).

Dementia has received increased recognition as a national priority in recent years. In 2015, the Prime Minister set a challenge to deliver major improvements in dementia care and support, create dementia-friendly communities, increase investment in research and improve public awareness and understanding of dementia by 2020 (Department of Health, 2015). A high level of priority was also given to dementia by the devolved governments in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2013), Northern Ireland (Department of Health, Social Services and 

1 Apart from in 1988 and 1992 when its core funding was used to fund the British Election Study series

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