Claire Lavelle: Dementia – What you need to know

Dementia is the term we use for degenerative brain diseases characterised by impaired memory and the loss of cognitive function such as problem-solving, linear thought and language. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of this much-feared condition, which was cited this week (14.11.16) as being the leading cause of death in England and Wales, with 61,686 deaths due to dementia registered in 2015. Moreover, it’s a condition that appears to affect greater numbers of women than men, for whom the leading cause of death is still heart disease, although experts are keen to point out that more research is needed on what they term ‘gender prevalence’.

As frightening as these statistics are, it’s important to keep them in perspective. We’re all living longer – women particularly – and fewer than five percent of people aged between 65-74 have Alzheimer’s disease. For people aged 85 and older, however, that number jumps to nearly 50 percent – the risk for AD increases with each decade of adult life. Bearing in mind that the average life expectancy in the UK is now 81 (in 1980 it was 73), it’s easy to see why the numbers appeared to have increased. And importantly, doctors are now far better at diagnosing the condition.

So is there anything we can do to ‘future-proof’ ourselves when it comes to dementia? Experts describe it as ‘multi-factorial’, so it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing that increases the likelihood of being affected. Advances in genetic profiling can tell us whether we’re predisposed to the disease (the risk of developing Alzheimer’s appears to be slightly higher if it’s affected a first-degree relative such as a parent, sister or brother) but there’s no real way to predict whether a person will develop dementia or not. However, eating well, exercising (both mind and body) regularly and maintaining a healthy BMI are all thought to help reduce risk, with some studies suggesting that staying mentally active by doing crosswords, reading books and staying socially engaged helps significantly.

What also appears to help are vitamin B supplements – studies have shown that patients with mild cognitive impairment, a pre-cursor to Alzheimer’s, suffered 50 percent less brain shrinkage overall if they took vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid, with a later study reporting that this shrinkage was reduced by 90 percent in areas of the brain most vulnerable to the effects of Alzheimer’s. Vitamin D3 and the omega 3 fatty acid DHA have also been shown to help control inflammation and improve plaque clearance (plaques are abnormal clusters of protein fragments that build up between nerve cells in the brain in a condition such as Alzheimer’s, impairing cognitive function).

A newly-developed magnesium compound called magnesium-L-threonate (MgT) has been shown to support learning and long and short-term memory function in the brain, while a diet rich in antioxidants is thought to be helpful in protecting against neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia. Including plenty of colourful vegetables, fruit, quality protein from fish and poultry, eggs, legumes and cold-pressed nut or seed oils in our diets is something we can all do without too much disruption to our daily routines.

There is no cure for dementia, but it’s important to remember that it’s not a ‘natural’ or inevitable part of the ageing process. Research into advancing management and treatment of the disease are ongoing, with Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, saying: ‘Dementia is caused by diseases that that can be fought by research, and we must bring all our efforts to bear on what is our greatest medical challenge.’ There is much we can do to help ourselves, too – it doesn’t have to be the disease that defines a generation.

– Claire Lavelle is a guest blogger for Bryn Tanat Wellness. She has been a health and wellbeing journalist for more than 20 years. Most recently deputy editor at Healthy magazine, she is now freelance and writes for national magazines and newspapers.