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Is there a “how to” on preventing and diagnosing dementia?

What’s the state of dementia research today and what needs to happen next? How can we recognise the early stages of dementia and what can we do about it?

These are some of the topics that When They Get Older co-founder Sandra Bullen discussed with leading dementia experts when we joined all-party discussions on dementia at the House of Commons prior to the G8 Dementia Summit.

Where are we today with identifying and addressing dementia?

Speakers* at the panel made it clear that we have a long way to go in understanding dementia and called for greater research funding.

  • 30 years ago one was diagnosed with “cancer’” and that would’ve been it. Not lymphatic cancer or bowel cancer – just cancer. Today we often talk about dementia as though it’s one condition. While we view it in this light diagnosis and treatment are next to impossible.
  • Trying to work with dementia patients who are showing symptoms is like working with cancer patients who are already in a hospice. It’s too late. It’s so much better to get assessed with very mild symptoms as then there is the possibility of assistance.
  • Energy (money, resources, research) needs to be put into early detection and intervention and of course prevention. This is where the main hope of the reduction of the numbers affected by dementia comes from. It’s thought that in the future we could halve the incidences of Alzheimer’s by simply modifying risk factors.

How can we identify dementia before it’s obvious – and too late?

As I was representing our When They Get Older community, I had the opportunity to ask leading thinkers on the subject “how do we help our parents recognise that they are at risk of dementia and/or recognise the early stages of dementia?”

It’s not easy to differentiate early signs of dementia from normal ageing processes. Our experts suggest that we:

  • Watch out for any very mild sign of “cognitive impairment” – memory loss, depression, unusual behaviour, inappropriate behaviour etc.
  • Try to help our parent to not be afraid to visit their GP with mild memory loss symptoms
  • Be aware that right now GPs are worried they might stigmatise people by suggesting they have dementia. We need to be forging the way that takes the stigma out of admitting there is anything wrong with our brain function.

In an article following on from the summit, journalist Max Pemberton also makes the point that we should ensure it’s a medically trained professional who is making the diagnosis.

What can we and our parents do to prevent dementia?

From a practical point of view, taking preventative steps is much easier than identifying symptoms or trying to slow down the process once it’s taken hold.

Although still much more research needs to happen, it’s thought the risk factors for dementia are much the same as for heart disease, ie smoking, lack of exercise, low omega-3 in the diet, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes. So the advice is to address both with a healthy lifestyle that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, be careful with the fat and salt, and take moderate exercise regularly.

Apart from this, there is some evidence to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish) and exercise are beneficial. Interestingly, a pilot trial has also shown a marked slowing of disease progression as a result of taking B vitamins which reduce the level of homocysteine in the blood.

If there are worries that parents are in an at-risk group, they can take the “cognitive function test” found on www.foodforthebrain.org. It takes just 15 minutes. While it’s not a diagnosis tool in any respect, it can help determine if a parent is at risk. At that point it’s worth making an appointment with the GP to share the test results.

Changing the future

I was astounded at how easily as society we accept the status quo. I recognise that I easily accepted that it is OK and normal to have a diagnosis of “dementia”. I easily accepted that there is nothing we can do about dementia if we get it. How wrong I am. The evidence suggests that we may be able to reduce the incidence of dementia considerably in the next 15 years.

As I left Committee Room 7 in the House of Commons, I couldn’t help but think that our nation’s attitudes and understanding toward dementia are going to change beyond recognition in the next 30 years. I for one would like to start from today and if I could help my parents along the way that would be great!

*Speakers at the panel included

  • Professor David Smith from the University of Oxford on “Modifying risk factors for dementia: where are we now and where do we need to go?”
  • Professor Nick Fox of University College London on “Pharmacological interventions to prevent dementia- a global approach”
  • Dr James Pickett of the Alzheimer’s Society on “Speeding up the search for new treatments and better care through international collaboration”

The Department of Health have produced a map outlining the quality of care and the rate of diagnosis across the country for dementia. Useful to see how diagnoses can vary dramatically in the UK.

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