Leading charity in £2 million boost for dementia prevention research

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By Philip Tubby | Thursday 21 September 2017

Hearing loss among factors to be targeted in new risk reduction studies

Alzheimer’s Research UK, Europe’s leading dementia research charity, will invest over £2million in four innovative new projects exploring ways to reduce the risk of dementia. The announcement, which comes on World Alzheimer’s Day (21 September), is the UK’s largest charitable investment in dementia risk reduction research.

There are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and this number is set to soar to over a million by 2025. While there are some drugs to help treat the symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia, there are no treatments that can stop or slow the spread of these diseases through the brain.

A recent report by the Lancet Commission estimated that around 35% of dementia cases could be prevented by eliminating nine risk factors linked to the condition. The review highlighted the broad potential of risk reduction across the population as a whole, but there are very few well-researched prevention programmes that offer concrete strategies to help individuals limit their risk of developing dementia.

The new projects, including two pilot interventions, are the first to be supported through the Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Prevention and Risk Reduction Fund. The four major studies are building on the latest research findings to identify the prevention measures that could have the greatest impact on different groups of people, and exploring ways to deliver strategies that are as easy for people to follow as possible. The new projects include:

  • A £246,00 study at the University of Manchester and Goldsmiths, University of London, to develop a technique for calculating an individual’s risk of dementia based on their medical records. Identifying people at high risk of developing conditions like stroke and heart disease has become a feature of modern GP care and a similar approach for dementia would allow preventative actions to target people earlier.
  • Nearly £800,000 for researchers to investigate whether internet counselling and other web-based support could help people make lifestyle changes to reduce their dementia risk. The University of Cambridge study will involve people at the highest immediate risk of dementia – those aged over 75.
  • Over £760,000 for researchers at the University of East Anglia to explore ways to boost the adoption of a Mediterranean style diet and increased physical activity – two lifestyle factors linked to a lower dementia risk. The team will also analyse medical data from over 9,000 adults to explore the relationships between cardiovascular health, diet, and brain health.

A fourth project will focus on the emerging link between dementia risk and hearing loss. There has been comparatively little research into this link compared to factors like exercise and diet, but the Lancet commission report published in July found that, as hearing loss is so wide spread, it may have more of an impact on the overall number of dementia cases than any of the other factors they identified.

Dr Sergi Costafreda Gonzalez, who is heading up the study at University College London said:

“In the UK, over two-thirds of people aged over 65 experience hearing loss, but most do not get hearing aid treatment. If they do, they very often stop using them, especially if they have memory problems. With mounting evidence of a strong link between hearing loss and dementia risk, this is potentially a huge missed opportunity for us to tackle the growing impact of dementia and make a real difference to people’s lives.

“While there is a clear association between the two conditions, the only way to really know if treating hearing loss could lower dementia risk is by running tests in people. We have developed a programme to help boost hearing aid use and this new funding will allow us to test this approach in people at a high risk of developing dementia. We’re hopeful that this work will highlight an approach to help delay the onset of dementia in the long run, and we’re very grateful to Alzheimer’s Research UK for this support.”

A report by the charity has previously shown that an intervention that could delay the onset of dementia by five years from 2020 could cut the number of people affected by dementia and the number of informal carers by over a third by 2030, and save the UK economy £14 billion.

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“Prevention is generally better than cure, and in the case of a disease like Alzheimer’s, for which there is currently no cure, this is especially true. While scientists continue to make progress towards more effective dementia treatments, it is crucial that we also explore ways people can reduce their risk of developing it in the first place.

“We are delighted to be able to invest over £2 million into these four innovative projects, which are taking up some of the biggest challenges in risk reduction research. By helping to identify and target the people most at risk of dementia, exploring the potential of tackling emerging risk factors like hearing loss, and finding the most effective ways to deliver risk reduction programmes, these studies hold real potential for empowering people to live longer free from the heartbreak of dementia.

“As we are living for longer, the numbers of people with dementia is set to keep rising. Without new ways to help, one in three children born today will die with dementia. Risk reduction research is a key part of our work towards transforming these prospects, and this major new investment is only possible thanks to the generous donations of our supporters.”

About the author

Philip Tubby