Dementia can rob sufferers of their dignity, cognitive function, and longevity. According to a new report, it is a major health concern, and dementia care should be integrated into health programs across the globe.
The World Alzheimer Report 2014, written by a team of researchers led by Martin Prince, a professor at King’s College London, is published in conjunction with World Alzheimer’s Day today. Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia.
Physical Illness Contributes to Dementia
According to the report, controlling diabetes and blood pressure, quitting smoking, and lowering heart disease risk are all things people can do to decrease their risk of dementia later in life. Prince's team found that diabetes can boost a person’s risk for dementia by 50 percent, which is why eating well and exercising are smart preventative measures.
The report also cites studies of dementia that show that people 65 and older who are ex-smokers have a similar risk as those who never began smoking, so it is never too late to quit and reduce your risk of mental decline.
Marc Wortmann, the executive director of Alzheimer's Disease International, noted that many of the risk factors for dementia are the same as risk factors for other noncommunicable diseases.
"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,” said Graham Stokes, who leads dementia care for the healthcare group Bupa in the United Kingdom, in a press statement.
“People who already have dementia, or signs of it, can also do these things, which may help to slow the progression of the disease,” Stokes added.
‘Ample’ Time to Take Care of Our Brains
Dr. Richard S. Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, said that Alzheimer’s disease actually starts in the brain about 20 years before it is diagnosed.
“That leaves ample time to make brain-healthier choices,” Isaacson said.
It's estimated that it takes an average of 17 years for research-based knowledge to be incorporated into standard care — a good reason to start taking care of your noggin now.
“While there is no one magic pill or cure, or definitive way to prevent dementia, the time is now for the public and physicians to get educated and informed about evidence-based risk-reducing strategies,” Isaacson said.
"People are surviving longer, and so age is the biggest risk factor for dementia. As everyday life becomes more technologically complex, you need intact cognition," said Mary Sano, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
The Role of Education and Brian Training
The new Alzheimer's report also states that people with better educational opportunities have a reduced risk of dementia later in life. According to the evidence, education has no impact on the brain changes that lead to dementia, but it can reduce their impact on intellectual function.
If we go into later life with healthy, stimulated brains, we can live happier, longer, and more independent lives. It’s vital to strive for healthy brain development throughout our lives, especially in mid-life when brain changes can begin without noticeable symptoms.
The report says that many people don't know what they can do to prevent dementia. The data show that just 17 percent of people realize that social interaction can impact their risk, while only 25 percent said that weight could be a factor and 23 percent said that physical activity, or lack of it, could affect their risk.
The survey did find that 68 percent of people around the world are concerned about developing dementia, so more education and awareness are badly needed.
Impact Is Greater in Developing Nations
“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,” Prince said.
He said the disease costs more than $600 billion per year to treat.
According to Alzheimer's Disease International, about 44 million people worldwide have dementia. By 2030, they believe that number will nearly double — and then triple by 2050. By 2050, the researchers predict 71 percent of people with dementia will come from low- to middle-income countries if advocates cannot raise greater awareness of the disease.