If I were Prime Minister: I would tackle our looming dementia crisis

Our series in the run-up to the General Election – 100 days, 100 contributors, but no party politicians – continues with the scientist and author

Susan Greenfield
Friday 30 January 2015 13:55 GMT

If I were Prime Minister the first thing I would do is ramp up our efforts on finding a cure for dementia, of which some 70 per cent is Alzheimer's. This tragic condition isn't a natural consequence of aging, it's a disease among older people. And if it's a disease there must be an underlying brain mechanism: we need to identify the root cause, as only then can we target it effectively to stop any more brain cells dying.

By the middle of the century, 2m people are going to be diagnosed with dementia. If you think about how many people love you in the world — let's say ten — then that's 20m lives that will be devastated emotionally. Just imagine someone who has for decades been your soul mate, no longer knowing who you are.

On top of this, the socio-economic cost of round the clock care will be massive. There has been no new treatment for over ten years, so current dogma can't be on the best track. We must do much more to encourage far more diverse and innovative types of research and approaches.

I would also introduce a new career structure in the public sector for female scientists. When you're a scientist, your late twenties are a crucial time for your career. You're doing all the crucial work that will eventually enable you to apply for lectureships. But as this is also the time when many people, want to start families, which impacts particularly on women. So we need to introduce more schemes that provide funding that make sure the time off to have a baby doesn't disrupt or derail anyone's career.

Education is also very important for me. As Prime Minister I would do all I could to elevate the status of teachers: there would be less focus on gadgets in the classroom and more on ensuring the wellbeing of the actual people, so that in turn they can be truly inspirational. At the moment there's hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on technology like iPads, but they don't have any proven pedagogic value. Much better to use the money saved to give teachers higher salaries.

We also need a nationwide consultation on the future of our education system. The digital world is changing how people are thinking, and how they process information and learn. So I would like to form a working party to look at what we need to teach children, and what skills and talents will best benefit society. This hasn't happened yet. And until we know what we collectively want, we can't progress.

I'd also introduce classics into the national curriculum. All kids would enjoy reading the Odyssey in translation. I read it when I was very young and I think it gives you a feeling of huge scale, of courage, destiny, fate, and free will. I know it sounds elitist, but my dad was an electrician and my mum was a dancer, yet I still did Latin and Greek. I don't see why you have to be posh to do it. Classics gives you such a truly rounded education, from the nuts and bolts of rehearsing working memory, to having a deep appreciation of literature and history compared across to very different civilisations.

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