Dementia: How to reduce your risk of the brain disease

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

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It is because of the many tragedies that have happened in the past, as well as the desire to prevent tragedies in the future, that scientists are working flat out to develop new treatments for diseases which sit under dementia’s deadly umbrella of conditions.

However, as there are no new treatments or a cure, researchers are also looking into how dementia can be prevented through changes earlier on in life.

One of the ways people can prevent dementia, say scientists, is by looking after the health of their heart in their mid-30s. This, at least, is the opinion of a group of researchers from University College London.

Publishing their findings in The Lancet Healthy Longevity journal, they have found that if people keep their heart healthy in their mid-30s this could reduce the risk of developing dementia.

The study analysed the data of around 500 adults between the ages of 69 and 71, who had a scan which assessed damage to their brain and blood vessels. These results were then compared to the results from healthy heart tests from when the same participants when they were 36.

From comparing these scans, the researchers concluded that a healthier heart in someone’s mid-30s led to a healthier and bigger brain and thus a reduced risk of dementia later in life.

Speaking about the research, the authors said: “The lower brain age seen in female participants aligns with previous brain age research, and is compatible with previous studies where female participants were found to cognitively outperform male participants.”

The researchers added: “This difference might also reflect sex differences in life expectancy in the general UK population at age 65 years, where women survive two to three years longer than men.”

What happens as the brain ages?

As the brain ages, the overall size of the brain decreases as the cells inside begin to die naturally. In order to minimise the shrinkage, the brain should be as healthy as possible earlier on in life.

Lead author of the study, Professor Jonathan Schott said: “We found that despite people in this study all being of very similar real ages, there was a very wide variation in how old the computer model predicted their brains to be.

“We hope this technique could one day be a useful tool for identifying people at risk of accelerated ageing, so that they may be offered early, targeted prevention strategies to improve brain health.”

Why does a healthy heart matter for a healthy brain?

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that a healthy cardiovascular system could reduce the risk of dementia. The reason for this stems from the purpose of the cardiovascular system, to pump oxygen around the body.

How does this link to dementia?

One of the jobs of the cardiovascular system is to pump blood and oxygen around the body. The more red blood cells it can pump, the more oxygen that will travel to crucial organs such as the brain; subsequently, the more oxygen the brain gets the healthier it will be.

Is heart health a risk factor for dementia?

Heart health isn’t currently listed as a risk factor for dementia, but things which can affect it such as lifestyle factors currently are.

Other examples of dementia risk factors include:
• Ageing
• Gender and sex
• Cognitive reserve
• Ethnicity
• Health conditions and diseases
• Social isolation
• Air pollution
• Education.

These last two risk factors, air pollution and education, are recent additions to the list of risk factors for dementia. Of the two, only the former has received endorsement by the UK government.

How can a risk factor be endorsed?

A risk factor can’t strictly be endorsed, but if a government comes out and says that there is a link between a risk factor and a disease, this increases the legitimacy of that risk factor; this is what happened last month.

The UKHSA (United Kingdom Health Security Agency) released a report into the link between air pollution and dementia. The report concluded “that the evidence is now suggestive of an association between ambient air pollutants and an acceleration of the decline in cognitive function often associated with ageing, and with the risk of developing dementia”.

This conclusion was reached after a review of the existing evidence, from this the government was able to decide whether or not it believed there was a link between air pollution and the disease.

A link between air pollution and dementia is one which is of notable significance, particularly when pollution levels are rising, and the effects of climate change are now beginning to be felt year-round and by almost everyone.

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