Tipping the scales on dementia risk


By Katy Stubbs | Thursday 21 September 2017

You often hear people saying ‘prevention is better than cure’, and while there is no sure-fire way to prevent dementia, we are beginning to understand that there are ways we could reduce our risk of developing the condition.

The biggest risk factors for dementia are our age and our genes, but with time machines and complex gene editing being a thing of sci-fi fantasy at the moment, research is looking elsewhere for answers on risk, such as lifestyle factors.

What do we know about dementia prevention?

Back in July, we blogged about a landmark report by the Lancet Commission which estimated that around 35% of dementia cases could be prevented if nine risk factors linked to the condition could be completely eliminated. What this study told us was how certain lifestyle factors and health conditions could impact dementia risk across the population as a whole. But what we don’t know yet is whether addressing these risk factors could actively reduce a person’s individual risk, and what strategies are best to help people keep these risk factors in check.

We are bombarded in the media by stories about certain foods, types of exercise, particular supplements and health factors that may increase or decrease our risk of dementia, so it can be difficult to sift through all this to find out what we should actually be doing. What is clear is that there is no single thing that will prevent dementia altogether, but there may be combinations of changes we could all make to reduce our risk.

What is dementia prevention research all about?

Over the years we’ve built up a solid base of evidence that what is good for your heart is good for your brain. Many of us are aware of what a healthy lifestyle looks like, but in practice it can be more difficult to adopt. This is where dementia prevention research is right now – trying to create and test programmes that support people in making and maintaining lifestyle changes to keep their brains healthy for longer.

Our Research team here at Alzheimer’s Research UK is constantly monitoring the ever-changing picture of dementia research, identifying gaps in knowledge and coming up with ways to fill these gaps. We spotted that there was a growing need for solid and reliable research into dementia prevention, and so have given a critical boost to this area by injecting over £2 million to support four brand new risk reduction projects.

What are these projects setting out to do?

These four projects are each looking at dementia prevention and risk reduction from a different angle, and the first is unlocking the wealth of information stored in our health records. Dr David Reeves from University of Manchester will lead a team aiming to use innovative machine-learning to accurately calculate an individual’s dementia risk based on their medical records. Cutting-edge new approaches like this could help GPs to identify people at risk and tailor health advice, in the same way information is given to people at increased risk of stroke and heart disease.

Much prevention research has focussed on trying to help people in their 40s and 50s make lifestyle changes, rather than people in their 70s who are at the highest immediate risk of dementia. A team led by Prof Carol Brayne at the University of Cambridge, will see whether web-based counselling and support is a practical and successful way to help people aged 75 and over make lifestyle changes. In a similar project, a team of researchers at the University of East Anglia, led by Prof Anne Marie Minihane, will look at whether they can boost the adoption of a Mediterranean style diet and increased physical activity, laying the groundwork for larger studies in the future.

The final project will explore the emerging link between dementia risk and hearing loss. Although the Lancet Commission identified hearing loss as the factor with largest potential effect on the number of dementia cases across the population as a whole, there has been relatively little research exploring this aspect of dementia risk. Dr Sergi Costafreda Gonzalez is leading a team at University College London that will ask whether encouraging people at risk of dementia to remember to wear their hearing aids can help maintain their memory and thinking for longer.

“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.”
Dr Sergi Costafreda Gonzalez

Looking to the future

These exciting new projects are on the launchpad so we will have to wait before we can learn lessons from their results. The findings from these exploratory studies will lay considerable groundwork for larger prevention studies involving thousands of people, so look out for updates on their progress.

It’s important to remember that lifestyle is just one contributor to dementia risk, but as we can’t turn back time or alter our genes, leading a healthy lifestyle is one way we can support our brains as they get older.

Thank you!

We receive no government funding for our research so rely on generous donations from people like you up and down the country. Your support is helping us be ever more ambitious in our research to defeat dementia, so thank you.

For advice on reducing your risk of dementia, read our booklet.

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Katy Stubbs