Many people are unaware that even simple lifestyle changes could reduce their risk of developing dementia, an expert in this field has said.
According to Prof Kate Irving of Dublin City University (DCU), at least one-third of dementia risk is due to lifestyle, including factors such as obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.
She pointed out that dementia tends to be addressed when it is already diagnosed. Risk reduction measures do not tend to be included in health promotion strategies alongside other chronic diseases. This includes the Government's flagship Healthy Ireland programme.
"People believe dementia is arbitrary and there is nothing you can do about it. We need to change that mindset. It is something we have some control over and we need to take some of this fear away. Fear is closing off the opportunities to have a conversation about this," she commented.
Prof Irving acknowledged that ageing remains the major cause of dementia, and genetics also plays a part, but aside from these, ‘a shroud of silence' surrounds the disease, preventing people from talking openly about it.
She pointed to some interesting findings from large-scale studies in this area, such as:
-While there is unlikely to be a significant treatment for dementia before 2025, risk reduction measures - mirroring the public health campaign against smoking - need to be stepped up and properly funded
-The importance of blood pressure and awareness of measurements are key. If everyone kept a regular check on their own blood pressure, this would play a significant part in later life
-One of the emerging risk factors that needs further research is sleep. Several studies have linked too much (more than eight hours) or too little sleep (less than seven hours) to an increased risk of dementia
Dr Irving also pointed out that there are currently up to 4,000 cancer drugs in development compared to less than 90 in dementia.
However, she also noted that researchers believe that with proper public health campaigns and well-funded research, it could be possible to ‘squeeze' the incidence of dementia ‘into a much shorter period at the end of life' in the future.
Dr Irving is joint editor of the recently published New Developments in Dementia Prevention Research, a collection of essays on the subject of dementia, with contributions from experts around the world.
Dementia is an umbrella term to describe a set of symptoms that occur when brain cells stop working properly. Such symptoms can include memory loss, changes in mood and behaviour, and problems with carrying out everyday tasks. Around 4,000 people are newly diagnosed in Ireland every year and the most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease.