Dementia – a diagnosis without blame, shame or guilt


By Fiona Calvert | Tuesday 19 January 2021

Sometimes it feels like almost everything we do, eat and drink can affect our risk of developing a disease. The list feels endless and sometimes overwhelming. And dementia is no different. You’ve probably seen reports of any number of things that might have an impact on the health of your brain, whether it’s chocolate, coffee or brain training games.

Our 2018 Dementia Attitudes Monitor highlighted that only 34% of people believe it’s possible to reduce their risk of dementia. Almost half of adults surveyed couldn’t identify a single risk factor for dementia.

Often scientists study risk at a population level looking across hundreds, sometimes thousands, of volunteers. That makes it even harder to know what we can do as individuals or make sense of what we see in the news.

So, we’ve answered the most common questions we get about risk!

Okay so, what exactly are modifiable risk factors, and how do I know which ones are important?

Risk factors are things that change how likely you are to develop a disease. But that can mean a lot of things. Often the things we see in the news are known as “modifiable risk factors” – these are things we can change.

Often the things we hear about in the news are from just one study, this can make it hard to judge which are important. But every so often scientists come together to look at all the evidence, this helps us to understand which risk factors we need to think about.

We use this information to make sure the advice on our website or in our blogs is always in line with the newest science. The World Health Organisation also published a report in 2019 updating their guidance on dementia risk reduction.

Some risk factors feel like they would be difficult for me to control, what can I actually do to reduce my risk?

That’s exactly right, it’s always important to remember is that even though some things, like early life education or air pollution, may be “modifiable”, they are really difficult to manage on your own.

We know that national and local governments also need to act to reduce these risks. Our Policy team work with policy makers, public health professionals and clinicians on issues just like these.

But there are things you can do to keep your brain healthy. That’s why we’re launching our Think Brain Health campaign.

We know messaging can be confusing and sometimes there is just too much to remember. Think Brain Health focuses on three key messages – heart health, stay sharp and keep connected.

So – if I do the right things, does that mean I won’t get dementia?

cases chart

For every 100 new cases of dementia, 40 could be prevented by eliminating 12 modifiable risk factors.

Unfortunately not. While we all wish there was a simple way to stop people developing dementia, we know that isn’t the case. Because even though there are “modifiable” risk factors for dementia, there are also things that no one can change.

Your genes and your age play a big part in your individual dementia risk. That is why some people live a healthy life and still develop dementia. Most recent studies suggest that if we eliminated all the modifiable risk factors there would be a 40% reduction in cases of dementia. This is why it is so important for us to continue to work to find treatments for the diseases that cause dementia.

Risk is complicated, especially at a personal level. There are many factors that contribute, some of which we know about and others that we may not know about yet.

The most important thing to remember is that there is never any blame associated with a dementia diagnosis.

What is Alzheimer’s Research UK doing to better understand dementia risk factors?

We believe it is vital to invest in research that is working towards reducing dementia risk and understanding why certain factors increase that risk. By teasing apart these complex risk factors and understanding when in life they’re most important, your support is helping us empower people to take positive action around their brain health.

We have funded £7 million of research into dementia risk so far. This investment has included funding for the Insight 46 project and a partnership with RNID to investigate the link between hearing loss and dementia.

To find out more about dementia risk, head to our Brain Health Hub.

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About the author

Fiona Calvert