In the news: Can we prevent Alzheimer’s?

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By Dr Laura Phipps | Monday 14 July 2014

In the news today are reports of a study from the University of Cambridge suggesting a third of cases of Alzheimer’s could be prevented. The researchers, in collaboration with teams in London and the US, studied seven of the most well-characterised risk factors for Alzheimer’s:

  • Diabetes
  • Midlife high blood pressure
  • Midlife obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Depression
  • Smoking
  • Low education.

Using statistical techniques, they calculated the proportion of Alzheimer’s cases attributed to each risk factor and concluded that a third of cases could be prevented.

This announcement comes in a week where the world’s leading dementia researchers are meeting in Copenhagen for the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2014. This is the largest meeting of dementia researchers in the world. Over the next few days we’ll be updating you on all the breaking stories.

Improving the health of a nation

This morning’s news suggests we could make big strides in tackling Alzheimer’s by staying healthy throughout life.

This morning’s news suggests we could make big strides in tackling Alzheimer’s by helping people to stay healthy throughout life. But this is easier said than done. We all know how easy it is to make an excuse for skipping that gym session or to be tempted by sugary snacks. These challenges were discussed yesterday by researchers at the Conference.

Goal-setting and mentorship

Dr Linda Clare at Bangor University outlined the AgeWell Trial, which aimed to increase physical and cognitive activity among over 50s living in a rural area of North Wales. The trial involved 75 people, who were given access to a community resource centre offering physical and mentally-stimulating activities including gentle exercise classes, dancing, computing, art, local history and reading groups.

Over a one-year period, the team found that those volunteers who showed the greatest increases in physical and cognitive activity were those who set goals at the start of the study and had mentoring every two months to monitor their progress. Volunteers in this group reported improvements in wellbeing, as well as diet and weight compared to those participants who weren’t given as much support.

Interestingly, many of those who agreed to participate in this study were women and it would be useful to see whether this approach is as helpful for men.

A similar trial was run by the University of Melbourne, called the INDIGO Study, which used goal-setting and volunteer mentors to promote physical activity in people with early memory problems. The researchers found that it wasn’t always easy to keep people on the programme, especially as apathy can be a symptom that goes along with memory decline, making people less interested in activities.

Using the internet to promote good health

We also heard about The Body Brain Life Program at the Australian National University. This programme aims to use online resources to help middle-aged adults reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s. The online course includes two educational modules which introduce people to dementia and raise awareness of the risk factors. It also has five modules to support people in considering nutrition, monitoring their overall health, incorporating physical activity in daily life and increasing social engagement.

The study has followed 176 people with an average age of 55, who already had several risk factors for Alzheimer’s. The results suggest that those who undertook the programme and had face-to-face meetings with a small group of other participants were more likely to report reductions in risk factors, suggesting the importance of mentoring and monitoring.

Listening to the needs of individuals

While many of these studies need longer follow-up to know whether these interventions will have helped the participants to reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s, it is good to see progress in this important area of research.

The scientists at the conference agreed that it’s not easy for people to change the lifestyle and eating habits of a lifetime. However, Dr Nicola Lautenschlager at the University of Melbourne stressed that it’s ‘worthwhile putting more effort into understanding individuals, their personality and their life story’.

It is important for risk-reduction schemes to be targeted and tailored to the needs of individuals, especially for those who already have early memory problems.

Funding for prevention research

The good news is that more studies are underway, including the European Dementia Prevention Initiative. Alzheimer’s Research UK already supports prevention research through the National Prevention Research Initiative and we have just committing to fund more through our Defeat Dementia campaign.

You can help us support pioneering prevention research by donating online.

News headlines:


  1. Molly Carr on 20th April 2015 at 10:44 am

    Since (according to this research) one of the best ways to avoid dementia is exercise, what are the (presumably increased) risks for the congenitally disabled and can they be reduced?

    • joanna howard on 27th April 2015 at 8:29 am

      My question is similar to Molly Carr’s – I’m disabled through osteoarthritis and a hip replacement that went wrong. I do go to the gym a bit, I garden and do housework, but I’ve never enjoyed exercise for its own sake, and even less so when it’s painful or boring.

      But the question re congenitally disabled people is more important.

  2. Molly Carr on 20th April 2015 at 1:59 pm


  3. ARUK Editor on 27th April 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Dear Molly and Joanna

    The Cambridge study highlighted a range of different potential risk factors for dementia, including physical inactivity, but it’s also important to remember that together these factors were thought to account for a third of cases of dementia. This suggests that two thirds of cases may not be linked to these risk factors. We know that age and genetics also play important roles in dementia risk. Understanding the preventable risk factors, like physical inactivity, could help design approaches that could reduce dementia risk at a population level but understandably these approaches may not be appropriate for everyone.

    However we know that what is good for your heart is good for your head, so some of the suggested benefits of physical activity on brain health are thought to be through the maintenance of healthy blood vessels. That means that trying to maintain good heart health such as a balanced diet, not smoking and keeping high blood pressure and cholesterol in check are also good ways to maintain a healthy brain as we age.

    You can read more on our website here:

  4. Sue Brewer on 3rd February 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Is there a volunteer system for research/diagnosis purpose?? I don’t want payment. My mother and her sister both had dementia. My mother lived until she was 98 but had progressive dementia with all the usual symptons – incontinence, confusion and personality changes – both good, bad and funny from her late 70’s, although her general health was excellent. I have three sisters (I am the youngest at 65) and, I think, we all are showing symptoms of dementia. I would love to know if I have early stages of the disease and also help with research. I live in Liverpool.

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Dr Laura Phipps