Half of UK adults are not able to spot any key risk factors for dementia, according to a study by Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Terrifying for those affected and heartbreaking for those who love them, dementia is something many of us fear.
The complex and debilitating condition is associated with a gradual decline in brain function, and ultimately comes with a terminal diagnosis.
But the condition isn’t always fully understood, which means that people often find it difficult to spot the risk factors associated with it.
Alzheimer’s Society research shows that 850,000 people in the UK have a form of dementia – mostly known for the effect it has on someone’s cognitive and functional abilities.
By 2021, 1 million people will be living with the condition. This will soar to two million by 2051.
A recent study, entitled Dementia Attitudes Monitor, found that despite more than half of UK adults now knowing someone with dementia, only 1% of the 2,361 people surveyed were able to name the seven known risk or protective factors for dementia.
The six risk factors are heavy drinking, genetics, smoking, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes, while physical exercise is a protective factor against the disease.
Although a third of cases of dementia are thought to be influenced by factors within our control, only 34% of people surveyed believe it is possible to reduce the risk of dementia, compared with 77% for heart disease and 81% for diabetes.
What’s more only half recognised that dementia is a cause of death, and they found that a fifth incorrectly believe it is an inevitable part of getting older.
Commenting on the findings Sally Copley, Director of Policy, Campaigns and Partnerships at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “As dementia is the UK’s biggest killer, it’s concerning to see that almost two thirds of people don’t believe it’s possible to take action to reduce your risk.
“A third of cases are potentially preventable, which is why we’re investing over £20million pounds in research to understand and prevent dementia and why we’ve campaigned for dementia to be included in NHS Health Checks to help people identify their risk.
“It’s really important that everyone takes advantage of these checks – at the moment only half of the 15 million people eligible have taken them up.
“Making lifestyle changes might feel daunting, but our research has revealed even little changes can make a big difference.
“Taking simple steps, like swapping sweets for fruit or walking instead of driving, can help reduce your risk of developing dementia.”
According to Alzheimer’s Society risk factors increase a person’s risk of developing dementia over a period of time. But there are also protective factors that can help to lower a person’s risk of the developing the condition.
Though some risk factors for dementia cannot be avoided or controlled – such as age, genetics, gender and ethnicity, other factors are ‘modifiable’, meaning we can take action to change them and potentially reduce the risk of dementia.
We spoke to Alzheimer’s Society to outline some of the risk factors.
Dementia risk factors we can’t change
The Alzheimer’s Society say although dementia is not a part of normal ageing , this is the strongest risk factor for dementia, as the chances of developing the condition rise significantly as we get older.
Recent stats estimate that dementia affects one in 14 people aged over 65 and one in six people aged over 80.
Our genes can influence our likelihood of developing dementia with over 20 genes being identified that could slightly increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
“The best known is APOE which comes in three variants: APOE2, APOE3 and APOE4,” explains Lotty Davies, Alzheimer’s Society Research Communications Manager.
“The most common variant in the population is APOE3, so this is considered to convey a normal level of risk. In comparison people who inherit one or two copies of APOE4 are at an increased risk of dementia, and those with one or two copies of APOE2 are slightly protected. There are a few genes that can cause an inherited form of dementia, but these are quite rare and account for less than 1 per cent of all cases.”
The Alzheimer’s Society says women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men and this isn’t just because on average they live longer. “Though the reasons aren’t fully understood, there is some evidence to suggest it could be due to hormones,” Lotty Davies continues.
According to Alzheimer’s Society there is some evidence that people of South Asian, African or African-Caribbean origin develop dementia more often than white Europeans. “This could be because they are also more likely to have diabetes or stroke, both which increase the risk of dementia,” Davies explains.
Modifiable risk factors
Smokers are at an increased risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia with research estimating the effect is between a 30% and a 50% increase in risk depending on the study and type of dementia.
Middle aged and older adults who engage in regular aerobic exercise have lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Studies estimate the protective effect to be about 30-40% reduced risk of dementia compared to those who do little or no physical activity.
Traumatic head injury
A severe injury to the head could increase the risk of dementia later in life. “There is lots of variability between studies on the size of the effect but a study of 200,000 US war veterans suggests a severe head injury can increase the risk of dementia by up to 60%,” Davies reveals.
The benefits of following a Mediterranean-style diet have long been discussed, but a diet with a high proportion of oily fish, fruit, vegetables, unrefined cereals and olive oil, and low levels of red meat and sugar is also associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Studies estimate that it could reduce the risk by about around a third.
Type 2 diabetes
According to Alzheimer’s Society people with type 2 diabetes are about 60% more likely to develop dementia than non-diabetics.
High blood pressure
Long-term research studies have demonstrated that high blood pressure in mid-life is a key factor that can increase your risk of developing dementia in later life. These findings highlight that a lifelong approach to good health as the best way to lower your risk of dementia.
Poor childhood education
People who spend fewer years in education as a child have an increased risk of developing dementia in later life. “Although we can’t change this as adults, it is something that we can change as a society to reduce the cases of dementia in our future population,” Lotty Davies explains.
Anyone with concerns about dementia should contact the Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 1122.
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