Dementia should be viewed as a preventable disease and not ‘simply an inevitable part of ageing’, Public Health England (PHE) has said in its latest Health Matters guidance to doctors.
GPs should inform patients that uptake of a healthy lifestyle including exercise, limiting alcohol and socialising with friends – particularly during midlife – can reduce their risk of developing the disease, it says.
A survey by Alzheimer’s Research UK found that only a quarter of British adults are aware they can actively reduce their risk of developing dementia, compared to 83% for diabetes and 82% for heart disease.
Dementia is the most feared health condition in people over 55, trumping cancer, stroke, heart disease and others. Two in five said they would be more likely to adopt a healthy lifestyle specifically to lower their risk of the condition.
Prevent dementia risk
What many recognise as actions to improve heart health can also contribute to maintaining a healthy brain, PHE said.
Patient should be advised to stop smoking, be more active, reduce alcohol consumption, improve diet and maintain a healthy weight to cut dementia risk.
Smoking is thought to double the risk of developing dementia. It can narrow blood vessels in the heart and brain, contributing to oxidative stress that damages the brain.
Studies have found that physical inactivity alone may be responsible for over a fifth (22%) of Alzheimer’s cases in the UK.
Conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high BP, stroke and Parkinson’s disease can also increase dementia risk, meaning action taken to reduce risk of developing these diseases can also impact a patient’s likelihood of getting dementia.
Keeping their brain challenged throughout later life can also help minimise a patient's dementia risk, such as by learning a second language, doing puzzles and reading.
Being socially active and engaging in volunteer work can help by improving mood, relieving stress and reducing risks of depression and loneliness.
There are currently 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK. Estimates suggest that this will leap to over 1m people in under a decade by 2025, with this doubling to over 2m by 2050.
PHE warns that these figures will ‘become a reality unless additional public health interventions are put in place’.
Estimates say a 20% reduction in risk factors per decade could reduce UK prevalence by 300,000 cases (16%) by 2050.
The annual UK cost of dementia – combining health and social care – surpasses the costs of cancer, heart disease and stroke – estimated at £26.3bn.
Not too late
‘The evidence indicates that a third of dementia cases worldwide are caused by modifiable risk factors,’ said GP Dr Charles Alessi, PHE’s lead for dementia.
‘Healthcare professionals should encourage people to change their lifestyle choices – it’s never too late to improve your health.
‘We know that stopping smoking contributes to a healthy life no matter what time you stop. Clearly, it’s better if you quit earlier, but it’s never too late.
‘One thing that worries people, at retirement age they can become very isolated. As they grow older, their world grows smaller. Remaining connected to their world and remaining connected to people is important, it helps to maintain an interest in life.
‘And keep thinking – there is a growing body of evidence that it is important to maintain cognitive training, and the longer, the better – it’s use it or lose it.’