A new global report on Alzheimer’s disease is highlighting the need for better prevention. Currently, more than five million Americans are living with the condition.
Alzheimer’s Disease International, the worldwide federation of Alzheimer’s associations, commissioned the “World Alzheimer Report 2014 Dementia and Risk Reduction: An analysis of protective and modifiable factors.”
The report presents research findings showing that controlling diabetes and high blood pressure can cut the risk of future dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Stopping smoking and reducing cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity and lack of exercise also helps cut the risk. Diabetes alone increases the risk of dementia by 50 percent, said the authors, led by Professor Martin Prince from King’s College London, U.K.
An individual’s level of education also affects their dementia risk. The report indicates that those with “better educational opportunities” have a lower risk of dementia.
But interestingly, education does not appear to prevent the brain changes that contribute to dementia. It protects intellectual functioning once the dementia process has begun.
Overall, “a well-nourished and well-developed brain may create some ‘reserve capacity’ such that, even in the face of neurodegeneration, an older person may be living normally with no signs of dementia,” the report states.
Prince said, “There is already evidence from several studies that the incidence of dementia may be falling in high income countries, linked to improvements in education and cardiovascular health. We need to do all we can to accentuate these trends.
“Many low- and middle-income countries show a recent pattern of increasing exposure to cardiovascular risk factors, with rising rates of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. With a global cost of over $600 billion, the stakes could hardly be higher.”
The report states that tobacco control and better prevention, detection, and control of high blood pressure and diabetes are vital for cutting dementia risk. So dementia prevention must be “integrated into both global and national public health programs alongside other major non-communicable diseases.”
It’s never too late to make beneficial changes, the report adds, because the evidence suggests that control of diabetes, stopping smoking, and increases in physical and cognitive activity can reduce the risk of dementia even in late life.
Marc Wortmann of Alzheimer’s Disease International commented, “From a public health perspective, it is important to note that most of the risk factors for dementia overlap with those for the other major non-communicable diseases. In high-income countries, there is an increased focus on healthier lifestyles, but this is not always the case with lower- and middle-income countries.
“By 2050, we estimate that 71 percent of people living with dementia will live in these regions, so implementing effective public health campaigns may help to reduce the global risk.”
The authors believe a good mantra is “What is good for your heart is good for your brain.” Based on this evidence, they strongly suggest that dementia is included in World Health Organization (WHO) and national non-communicable disease planning. They also want to see more reliable research on dementia risk and lifestyle.
“The future course of the global dementia epidemic is likely to depend crucially upon the success or otherwise of continuing efforts to improve global public health,” the authors said.
A recent survey by the international health care group Bupa suggests that the causes of dementia are not widely known and many are not aware how lifestyle choices affect the risk.
The survey, of 8,513 individuals in the U.K., Australia, Chile, China, Poland, and Spain, found just 17 percent knew that social interaction with friends and family could affect their risk of dementia.
Although more than two-thirds of those surveyed around were concerned about getting dementia in later life, only one-quarter knew that being overweight is a possible factor, and only one in five thought that exercise could affect their risk.
Commenting on the findings, Graham Stokes, Ph.D., of Bupa said, “While age and genetics are part of the disease’s risk factors, not smoking, eating more healthily, getting some exercise, and having a good education, coupled with challenging your brain to ensure it is kept active, can all play a part in minimizing your chances of developing dementia.
“People who already have dementia, or signs of it, can also do these things, which may help to slow the progression of the disease.”