Could an internet-based intervention help reduce dementia risk in the over 75s?

We’re funding a range of research projects to develop understanding of the different risk factors for dementia, with each one helping to build a clearer picture of how we can protect our incredible brains and help stack the odds against the condition.

One exciting study at the University of Cambridge is exploring whether an internet-based intervention could encourage healthy lifestyle changes in people aged between 75 and 90, who are at a higher risk of developing dementia.

In this post, Linda Barnes, National Coordinator for Cognitive Function and Ageing Studies, talks to us about the long-term impact the project could have and how plans have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why is this study so important?

Around forty percent of dementia cases are linked to factors we may be able to influence such as smoking, low levels of physical activity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes.

Whilst there have been intervention trials aimed encouraging lifestyle changes, to date such approaches have not been attempted in those aged over 75.

Our pilot study aims to see if an internet counselling intervention, which allows participants to set and monitor personal goals targeting their heart health with the support of a motivational coach, is feasible and acceptable to those from older age groups.

The study uses a multicentred approach to engage participants from across the UK. Why is this beneficial?

This approach allows us to collaborate with experts within the field of ageing who are based at different universities but share a passion for healthy ageing and public health research. Plus, with centres spread across the UK we can look at ageing from both an urban and rural perspective.

This study has highlighted the availability of services across different areas and how some are better served than others by both infrastructure and health service provision.

For you, what’s most exciting about this study?

It’s given us an insight into how many people within these older age groups are embracing technology – identifying themselves as computer literate – and how this has changed over the course of the last few years.

And I’ve been inspired by the resilience of our study participants and how they’re always happy to give their time to help increase knowledge, which could potentially help future generations to reduce their dementia risk.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your original plans?

Luckily fieldwork had been completed prior to the start of the pandemic, however the analysis stage was delayed as the team were seconded to support both the government and NHS with statistical projections of COVID.

Alzheimer’s Research UK also supported us to conduct a further piece of research using telephone interviews with the same volunteers to look at what impact the coronavirus-induced social isolation measures have had on our participant’s physical and mental health. This information will also help inform future decisions on how to combat loneliness – another risk factor linked with dementia.

What do you plan to do with the data next?

Once we’ve had an opportunity to look at the data on the internet-based intervention in detail, we will be able to assess the potential for upscaling these methods into a larger, longer term trial. This could provide evidence for the role of relatively low cost online counselling for dementia risk reduction in older adults within primary and community care services across the UK.

We’re looking forward to publishing our findings from both this and the additional social isolation study shortly.


About the author

Linda Barnes

Linda Barnes is the National Coordinator for Cognitive Function and Ageing Studies based at Cambridge University.