One in three dementia cases preventable through lifestyle changes

Researchers have urged GPs to 'be ambitious about prevention' after finding that cracking down on key risk factors such as hearing loss, smoking and lack of education could prevent a third of dementia cases.

GPs could help prevent one in three dementia cases (Photo: Simon Barber)
GPs could help prevent one in three dementia cases (Photo: Simon Barber)

Lancet report concluded that better preventative work on these three risk factors could help prevent 35% of dementia cases by building cognitive resilience throughout life and helping protect the brain from becoming damaged in later years.

It urged healthcare professionals to ‘be ambitious about prevention’ and actively treat conditions such as hypertension in patients who do not have dementia to reduce their risk of developing the condition later.

The report was compiled by 24 international experts who summarised the available evidence on risk factors for dementia, and will present their findings on Thursday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London.

The RCGP warned that properly funding a strong general practice would be key to patients maintaining strong physical and mental health as recommended by the study.

Lifestyle changes

The experts concluded that not completing secondary education in early life may raise dementia risk by ‘reducing cognitive reserve’ – because the brain had less opportunity to strengthen its networks to preserve its functions in later life despite age-related decline.

Preserving hearing in mid-life could help people maintain a ‘cognitively rich environment’ and build cognitive reserve, they said, which may be lost if hearing is impaired. Alternatively, impaired hearing may contribute to cognitive decline by causing social isolation and depression.

They added that, in later life, stopping smoking will reduce exposure to neurotoxins and improve cardiovascular health, in turn improving brain health.

They also called for public health initiatives to focus on helping older patients ‘engage in mentally-stimulating activities’, such as a combination of pursuing hobbies, going to the cinema, eating out at restaurants, going to sporting events, reading, doing volunteer work, playing games and having a busy social life.

GPs promoting physical activity, treating high BP and diabetes are also likely to benefit patients at risk of dementia.

'Dementia-proofing'

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘We welcome the broader, societal approach outlined in this research, and certainly the idea that we all need to take individual responsibility, usually by making relatively small lifestyle changes – at all stages of life – to "dementia-proof" our own health, and that of our families.

‘It is clear that maintaining optimal physical and mental health and wellbeing is key, which stresses the importance of having a properly funded general practice service, and wider NHS.

‘But also for having appropriate services in the community, such as smoking cessation services, schemes to promote physical activity, and services that could help stave off social isolation – and for GPs and our teams to have quick and easy access to these.’

Lead author Professor Gill Livingston said: ‘Although dementia is diagnosed in later life, the brain changes usually begin to develop years before, with risk factors for developing the disease occurring throughout life, not just in old age.

‘We believe that a broader approach to prevention of dementia which reflects these changing risk factors will benefit our ageing societies and help to prevent the rising number of dementia cases globally.’

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