People should exercise more, eat a healthy and cut down on alcohol to reduce their risk of dementia, the World Health Organization said today.
In its advice for people trying to avoid the brain disorder, the UN health bosses said diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity should also be controlled.
A huge review of existing evidence found age was the strongest risk factor for the memory-robbing condition – but said it is not an inevitable consequence of ageing.
There are already more than 50million people around the world with dementia and this figure is expected to triple to 152million by the year 2050.
Although it can’t be cured or prevented with any certainty, people who take good care of themselves may have lower odds of getting it.
Scientists have reacted by calling for more work on medicines to treat dementia and said the report clarifies what they already knew.
Dementia is expected to affect more than 150million people around the world in 30 years’ time and the World Health Organization today released advice on how to avoid it (stock image)
The WHO Guidelines on Risk Reduction of Cognitive Decline and Dementia were published today by the international health experts.
Although the quality of scientific evidence to back up many of the recommendations was low, most were recommended to improve general health.
A Mediterranean diet, which it suggested as the ultimate healthy eating, contains a lot of fruit and vegetables, nuts, lentils, beans and potatoes or rice.
The WHO stopped short of saying dementia risk could be reduced by better social interactions, hearing aids for those going deaf or the treatment of depression.
It added at-risk patients could be given brain training activities but there was no science to support taking vitamin B, E or Omega-3 supplements for brain health.
According to the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, only one in three people (34 per cent) in the country – where around 850,000 people have dementia – realise they can do anything to reduce their risk of the brain damage.
Dr Carol Routledge, the charity’s director of research, called the WHO report a ‘valuable resource’ which contains ‘the best possible information’.
WHAT CAUSES DEMENTIA?
Dementia is not a specific illness but an umbrella term to describe various conditions which cause irreversible brain damage and ultimately death.
Symptoms of the condition include memory loss, struggling to understand language, physical frailty and poor coordination, and personality changes.
The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for between 60 and 80 per cent of cases.
Alzheimer’s is caused by a build up of waste proteins in the brain which, as they accumulate, disrupt the connections between nerves and eventually cut off and therefore shut down sections of the brain.
Exactly why these proteins build up in some people isn’t known, but people may have a genetically higher risk of it happening, and it’s far more common in old people.
Another common type of dementia is vascular dementia, in which parts of the brain are destroyed when their blood supplies are cut off.
This could be caused by a stroke or heart disease, and affects around 150,000 people in the UK.
Risk factors for vascular dementia include high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and diabetes.
‘Sadly, there will always be individuals who address many or all of these risk factors and still develop dementia,’ Dr Routledge said.
‘Genetic predisposition plays an important role in many people’s risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s, and while we cannot change the genes we inherit, taking the steps outlined in this report can still help to stack the odds in our favour.’
Dementia is not a single illness but an umbrella term to describe a diseased decline of the brain, which leads to physical disability and mental disability.
It is incurable and eventually kills people who develop it, most of whom are elderly. Alzheimer’s disease causes around two thirds of dementia cases.
Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, Professor Bart De Strooper, said: ‘Little hard evidence is available that modifying environmental factors modify the risk for dementia strongly.
‘What is clear however is that the major risk for a dementing disorder like Alzheimer’s disease is the genetic predisposition of the patient which is the main focus of the Dementia Research Institute.
‘We need urgently medications to control these pathologies.’
Dr Fiona Carragher, a chief research officer at the Alzheimer’s Society, said an estimated third of all dementia cases could be prevented.
She called it the ‘biggest health challenge of our generation’, welcomed the report and said the charity is currently funding the UK’s largest study into risk factors.
Professor Tara Spires-Jones, deputy director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, said the guidelines were important because there is no way for doctors to prevent dementia.
She said: ‘The WHO has… made recommendations that some lifestyle changes, in particular increasing exercise before any cognitive symptoms are present, can reduce dementia risk.
WHAT ARE THE WHO’S RECOMMENDATIONS?
Adults with normal brain function or mild cognitive impairment (a precursor to dementia) should exercise regularly to reduce their risk of brain decline.
Adults who smoke should stop.
People should eat a Mediterranean-like diet – everyone should have a healthy, balanced diet. Vitamin B, E or Omega-3 supplements should not be recommended to people trying to reduce their risk of dementia.
Interventions to reduce ‘hazardous or harmful’ drinking should be targeted at all adults.
Brain training should be offered to older adults with normal brain function or mild cognitive impairment – activities weren’t specified.
Obesity interventions should be offered to people who are seriously overweight.
High blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol should be managed.
There was insufficient evidence to encourage recommending social activities, the management of depression, or wearing hearing aids – but these should all be offered to people who would benefit from them.
‘Other recommendations have a less strong evidence base but may have evidence that they do not increase risk or harm, and can therefore be recommended safely, although their impact on risk is less certain.
‘While some people are unlucky and inherit a combination of genes that makes it highly likely they will develop dementia, many people have the opportunity to substantially reduce their risk by living a healthy lifestyle.
‘If people around the world follow these recommendations, we should be able to reduce the burden of dementias.’
Professor Tom Dening, director of the Centre for Old Age and Dementia at the University of Nottingham, said it was good the WHO denounced supplements.
‘The negative recommendation, advocating that people do not use vitamin or dietary supplements (unless they are needed for a clinical problem) is welcome,’ he said.
‘It is to be hoped that it saves lots of people from wasting their money.’
Professor Robert Howard, an old age psychiatry expert at University College London added: ‘Keep on doing the things that we know benefit overall physical and mental health (smoking cessation, reduce harmful alcohol drinking, treat hypertension, eat a healthy balanced diet and lose weight if you are obese), but understand that the evidence that these steps will reduce dementia risk is not strong.
‘Like many colleagues, I already tell my patients that what is good for their hearts is probably good for their brains.’
WHAT IS DEMENTIA? THE KILLER DISEASE THAT ROBS SUFFERERS OF THEIR MEMORIES
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders
A GLOBAL CONCERN
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders, that is, conditions affecting the brain.
There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.
Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.
Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.
It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.
In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.
Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.
IS THERE A CURE?
Currently there is no cure for dementia.
But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.
Source: Dementia UK