Dementia: tackling risk factors

Acting now could produce huge long-term benefits to society

The number of people with dementia in the Republic is expected to more than double over the next 20 years, from 55,000 today to 113,000 in 2036. Half a million of us have had a family member with the condition. And while most common in older people, about one in 10 people diagnosed with dementia in Ireland are under 65 years old.

Precipitated by different neurological disease processes, there is presently no cure. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type and accounts for about two-thirds of cases. Vascular dementia is the second most common form, and is caused by diseases which affect the circulation in the brain. Common symptoms include memory loss, confusion about time or place, difficulty communicating, issues with problem solving and behaviour change. A certain amount of fear and stigma means people can be slow to seek help.

A recent paper in the Lancet medical journal, outlining ways of preventing dementia, is therefore welcome. It suggests about one in three cases can be prevented. Prof Gill Livingston and her colleagues at University College London (UCL) have detailed compelling international evidence for nine lifestyle factors that may affect an individual's risk of developing dementia. These are: more childhood education, exercise, being socially active, stopping smoking, managing hearing loss, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. Tackling any of these could help at least delay the onset of the condition.

The message from the UCL experts is worth repeating. It is never too late to stop smoking. Get your blood pressure checked if you are 45 or over and keep it under control. Be physically, mentally and socially active and watch your weight and blood sugar. Recently the World Health Organisation adopted a global plan on dementia covering the period 2017-2025. It sent a clear message to governments that national dementia plans must be fully funded and implemented. The Lancet recommendations require public health input as well as individual effort. Acting now could produce huge long-term benefits to society.