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Q & A with Dr Aida Suárez-González, IoN

17 September 2020

We spoke to Dr Aida Suárez-González a Clinical Neuropsychologist and Senior Research Fellow from UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology about her latest research into the impact Covid-19 has on people living with dementia across the world.

Dr Aida Suarez Gonzalez

1. What influenced your decision to work in dementia research and what inspires you most about this field?

I grew up with a very positive view of old age and the ageing process in general, shaped by the fact that I was brought up by my fantastic granny. Later on, during my undergrad, I became very interested in brain sciences. This combination of interests, ageing plus brain, led me to eventually pursue a career as a Clinical Neuropsychologist specialised in dementia. The call of research knocked at my door many years later, influenced by the many patients I saw in clinic, and my desire to find ways to support them better.

What inspires me the most about this field is seeing the progress made by other colleagues. This is for me proof and reminder that the power of science is unstoppable and key for a better future for people with dementia.

2. Can you very briefly tell us about your journey into dementia research?

I trained and worked as a Clinical Neuropsychologist in the neurology department of a busy tertiary hospital, Hospital Virgen del Rocio, in Seville, Spain. I worked there for 9 years. I am a clinician who was profoundly influenced by the dementia neurologists who mentored and trained me during that time. With their support, some years ago I came to Queen Square for what it was supposed to be a 6 months international experience. During that visit, I established contact with colleagues at the Dementia Research Centre (DRC) and we started a collaboration that culminated two years later with me moving to London to join the department as a clinical scientist. It has been 7 years since my starting day at the DRC and I am now a senior investigator conducting translational research in dementia diagnosis and care.

3. You have recently co-authored a report, alongside colleagues from UCL’s Division of Psychiatry, documenting the devastating effect of Covid-19 on people with dementia across the world, can you tell us about the most surprising finding in this report?

Our results show that in many countries people with dementia account for a large proportion of Covid-19 deaths. In countries where data was available, the proportion of people with dementia who died of Covid-19 in care homes ranged between 29% and 75% of all deaths in care homes. Moreover, we also found that the most basic human rights and needs of this population were often overlooked, for example, their right to access healthcare, intensive care or palliative care and their right to see their families for those living in care homes

Very worryingly, we also found that the dementia data system is deficient or completely inexistent in many countries. This is a problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency because it hinders our understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on dementia care and thus, our capacity to respond to it.

4. Can you explain how COVID made living with dementia more difficult – for those who have dementia and for those who are carers?

For start, confinement is the opposite of what a person living with dementia requires. Dementia is a neurodegenerative disease and people with this condition need care, therapies, routines, and meaningful social interaction. Many vital therapeutic and support services were interrupted during the lockdown and replaced by nothing, which had a detrimental effect on the cognitive and mental health of this population. This also placed an extra burden on families, who had to continue providing care single-handed amid very adverse pandemic conditions.

In care homes, the situation has been even worse. People living in care homes are the most vulnerable because they are older and in more severe stages of the disease. Ironically, they have gone through the worst version of lockdown. The isolation and quarantine measures imposed in many care homes worldwide are extremely harsh, very unfair and are having a devastating and damaging effect on the lives of people living with dementia. The controversial ban on visits (including spouses and care partners) to care homes across the world have kept people with dementia detached from essential affective bonds and provision of family care for many months.

5. Why is this report important and what impact do you hope it will have?

It is very important because it documents the negative impact that Covid-19 is having on people with dementia around the world but it also contains many short- and long-term calls for action and examples of measures for improvement.

In terms of impact, I hope this report will convince policymakers and public health authorities that dementia lives matter and that the deficiencies in the system of care and support that surfaced during the pandemic require urgent action. The report is also intended to support that action by providing practical advice about what specific measures are needed to make sure that people with dementia are not being left behind during current and future waves of Covid-19.

6. What’s next for this particular research project?

I am currently seeking funding to continue monitoring and documenting the impact of Covid-19 on people with dementia and to amplify the visibility and impact of this work (for instance, I am currently building an outreach plan targeting local authorities). Moreover, with this funding – if successful! -, I will create an open-access tool to guide institutions and organisations in the rapid implementation of evidence-based practical measures to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on this population.

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