Dementia 'rare' within 20 years and lifestyle changes can delay onset, says expert

Dementia to be rare: Smiling senior couple jogging in the park. Sports activities for elderly people. (Getty Images)
Dementia could be rare by 2050, supported by treatments and lifestyle changes. (Getty Images)

Dementia will be a rare condition within 20 years, a leading expert believes is possible.

Professor Craig Ritchie of the first new Brain Health Clinic of its kind says there is "every reason to be optimistic" because scientists have a better understanding of the disease and how to prevent around 40% of cases, Scottish paper The Herald reports.

Prof. Ritchie has high hopes of a specific drug being able to cure dementia in certain people if it is used before symptoms have developed and referenced "strong evidence" that certain lifestyle changes by an 85-year-old could delay the onset of dementia to 95 or 100.

He has since reiterated his hopes in his recent Tweet, stating, "dementia could and should be a very rare condition by 2050". The condition is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning, with Alzheimer's one of the most common.

Caprese salad
A Mediterranean diet is one of the lifestyle factors that can help ward off dementia. (Getty Images)

Prof. Ritchie spoke at the launch of Brain Health Scotland, for which he is the director, at Murrayfield Stadium, which is aiming to help prevent former rugby players from developing the disease.

"I'm very very confident," said Ritchie, Professor of Psychiatry and Ageing at University of Edinburgh. "We understand the disease, we understand what is going on in the brain.

"The biggest hurdle is getting services like this [Brain Health Clinic]. We need to get to people before dementia develops."

Ritchie said there are two main things we can do now. "Identify risk factors and manage them as effectively as possibly – and that could be picking up diabetes or Atrial Fibrillation [risk factors for dementia] – and do behavioural modifications with the [rugby] players and public."

He highlighted there are studies going on with disease modifying therapies, which can reduce activity and progression.

Read more: Daily brisk walk or bike ride 'may reduce older people's risk of Alzheimer's'

MRI digital x-ray of brain with team radiologist doctor oncology working together in clinic hospital. Medical healthcare concept.
Professor Craig Ritchie says we need to progress from research to putting what we know into practice in the fight against dementia. (Getty Images)

"There is a drug [Aduhelm] that actually clears amyloid [abnormal proteins that play a part in dementia] in the brain. However, it didn't seem to have any benefit clinically," he explained. "The reason being that it was given too late."

But, he added, "There is every prospect that in the future we can give that drug to people who have amyloid in their brain but no symptoms and cure the disease."

Ritchie said medicine now needed to move beyond research, "and put what we know into practice".

While the Brain Clinic is the first important step in the set-up of these clinics for everyone in Scotland by 2025, it also has the potential to be developed internationally and clinics delivered across the wider global rugby community

Traumatic brain injury has been identified as one of the 12 modifiable risk factors of the disease by a Lancet Commission report, as well as alcohol intake, obesity, hearing loss and high blood pressure.

Read more: These are the key decades to get fit if you want to stave off dementia, study reveals

Man sleeping.
Sleep and brain health can help prevent dementia. (Getty Images)

“When you look at the list of 12 [risk factors] it’s actually plus one because the Lancet Commission didn’t include sleep," highlighted Ritchie. "There’s good evidence around sleep and brain health.

“Some of those are just common sense such as diet and exercise. But there are some which are specific [to brain health] like social isolation and stress, depression and hearing loss.

“At an individual level, not smoking, not drinking and having a Mediterranean diet will have a small, incremental benefit.

“If you were destined to get dementia at 85 and you take these lifestyle changes, your onset might be 95 or 100."

He is cautiously optimistic. “We are not saying we are going to absolutely prevent someone having dementia but we are going to push that onset on by 15-20 years," he said

Read more: Grandson creates 'water sweets' to prevent dehydration after caring for grandmother with dementia

Watch: Rugby union star opens up about dementia battle

Male and female players who want to utilise the clinic, with former Scotland captain Gordon Bulloch among those already signed up, will have a three-stage investigation phase involving blood testing, brain scanning and health/lifestyle interviews which will help clinicians support them with an appropriate brain health plan, Scottish Rugby outlines.

Plans will be tailored to the individual providing risk profiling and prevention planning to help manage future health through help and advice on key lifestyle factors such as physical exercise, sleep, diet, sociability and keeping mentally active, as well as other things. Findings from this will help with future brain health work.

The clinic has been made by bringing together world-leading brain health medical experts based in Scotland and the UK.

Gordon Bulloch said, “I’m happy to support this initiative and the work the new Brain Health Clinic will deliver. None of us are getting any younger and no-one knows what is around the corner so it’s best to be as prepared as you can."

Symptoms of dementia include problems with memory loss, thinking speed, mental sharpness, language, such as using words incorrectly, or trouble speaking, understanding, judgement, mood, movement and difficulties doing daily activities. If you are worried about any of these, consult your GP.

For more information or support with dementia, contact Dementia UK on 020 8036 5400 or email