Dementia: 40% of dementia cases could be prevented by targeting 12 risk factors

John Barnes opens up on his aunt’s dementia on GMB

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The research in question was conducted by a group of scientists working in collaboration with the sole aim of identifying and expanding the list of risk factors for dementia.

The result of their efforts is an expanded list: one split into three groups, early-life, mid-life, and later life. For the purposes of these categorisations, ageing was removed as a risk factor for the disease, although it remains very influential.

While one may not consider the early part of someone’s life to be influential in regards to dementia, the researchers concluded that less education in the early stages of someone’s life could increase their risk of dementia.

The reason for this was because it was found that higher and longer lasting education improved cognitive performance; the higher this performance was, the less likely dementia was likely to occur. However, this doesn’t mean someone who leaves school at 16 is more likely to develop dementia than a master’s student.

What about the other risk factors?

For mid-life the main influences for dementia onset were:
• Hearing loss
• Hypertension
• Obesity
• Excessive alcohol intake
• Head injury.

Although separate, excessive alcohol intake can have an important bearing on the likelihood of obesity and high blood pressure. The lower someone’s fitness, the less efficient their cardiovascular health is likely to be.

Why does cardiovascular health matter for dementia?

The body needs the cardiovascular system to pump blood and nutrients around the body; contained within the blood is oxygen. The healthier the cardiovascular system, the more blood and oxygen that can be driven to the brain, the healthier that organ will be.

It is for this reason that smoking was included as a risk factor by the researchers, albeit under the banner of “Later life (65+)”. Other risk factors under this category included:
• Smoking
• Depression
• Social isolation
• Physical inactivity
• Diabetes
• Air pollution.

Lead author Professor Gill Livingston said of the study: “Our report shows that it is within the power of policy-makers and individuals to prevent and delay a significant proportion of dementia, with opportunities to make an impact at each stage of a person’s life.

“Interventions are likely to have the biggest impact on those who are disproportionately affected by dementia risk factors, like those in low- and middle-income countries and vulnerable populations, including Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.”

On low and middle income nations, the University of Ibadan’s and report co-author Professor Adesola Ogunniyi, added: “In low- and middle-income countries, the higher prevalence of dementia risk factors means an even greater proportion of dementia is potentially preventable than in “higher-income countries”.”

What this report highlights is that preventing dementia is not just a case of taking action when people age, but rather the risk of onset is a life-long balancing act which can be tipped for or against dementia’s favour.

When the report was released in early-2020, it drew great plaudits from charities such as Alzheimer’s Society which welcomed its publication.

At the time, Director of Research at the charity, Fiona Carragher said: “[These] findings underline why we need to consider every dimension of care for a complex condition like dementia – physical, mental health and social. But also we need to focus on family carers, who should be equal partners in dementia care.

“Our dementia care researchers are building a picture of what good dementia care can look like. But it’s not being put into practice consistently across the country, and there is much more to learn.”

Ms Carragher followed up this statement with a call to the Government to increase dementia funding, a policy which formed a key part of its 2019 manifesto just months earlier. Fast forward to August 2022 and the Government has. responded.

Earlier this month, the Babs’ Army initiative was launched, calling for volunteers to take part in studies which could make a difference to dementia research and patients. The “national mission” was named after the late actress Dame Barbara Windsor who died from the condition in 2020.

As well as launching Babs’ Army, soon to be former Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the Government was committing an extra £95m in funding for research, meeting the 2019 manifesto commitment to double funding by 2024 to £160m.

In a statement, the PM said: “I am delighted that we can now honour Dame Barbara in such a fitting way, launching a new national dementia mission in her name. We can work together to beat this disease, and honour an exceptional woman who campaigned tirelessly for change.”

Chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK Hilary Evans described the new funding as “welcome”, and that the charity was “really pleased the Government has come in behind our call to increase funding in dementia”.

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