THE toll dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can take on a family is limitless
No one can predict how fast a loved one will go downhill or the care plans that are needed, and the emotional fallout can be huge.
Last week Vicar of Dibley star Trevor Peacock, 89, died of a dementia-related illness. And in the last year EastEnders actress Barbara Windsor, 83, and England World Cup legend Jack Charlton, 85, were also lost to dementia.
My family is on the same path as the Peacocks, and while we know how it will end, no one can tell us what the years to come will look like.
My Dad Mick is one of the 209,600 diagnosed every year with a form of dementia – that is one every three minutes.
Currently around 850,000 people in the UK have dementia or Alzheimer’s, the most common form, and that figure is set to increase to one million by 2025 and two million by 2050.
While certain types of dementia are hereditary, new research suggests up to 40 per cent of dementia cases could be prevented or delayed by adopting simple lifestyle changes.
Here I talk to Dr Thuva Amuthan and Tim Beanland from the Alzheimer’s Society about 12 effective ways, and my dad discusses his diagnosis.
THE single most effective way to prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia is to exercise regularly, according to countless studies.
Aerobic exercise – the type that gets your heart going – slashes the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45 per cent and dementia by a third, 11 combined experiments showed.
Dr Amuthan tells Fab Daily: “Exercise has been shown to improve functional ability in those with dementia with some studies reporting improvement in memory performance but further research is needed.”
You might find it helpful to start off with a small amount of exercise and build it up gradually.
Mr Beanland adds: “You don’t need to join a gym or buy expensive gear. If you’re a beginner, start with light activity and you could even sign up to do a Memory Walk with Alzheimer’s Society this autumn through memorywalk.org.uk.”
PEOPLE with even moderate hearing loss are up to five times more likely to develop dementia.
Studies found men with an impairment were 69 per cent more likely to develop the disease than those with no hearing loss.
The risk escalates as a person’s hearing loss worsens.
When the “hearing” section of the brain grows inactive, it results in tissue loss and changes in structure.
Dr Amuthan says: “Losing one of your five senses at an age where you start depending on others for some of your needs can lead to isolation. With reduced social interactions, I often find patients develop depression.
“In the presence of other risk factors this can increase their risk of developing dementia.
“Hearing tests are available free of charge on the NHS either via your GP or much faster via large pharmacies or opticians.”
LONG-TERM binge drinkers are more likely to suffer changes to white matter, which is responsible for transmitting signals between different parts of the brain.
Over time this can lead to dementia.
Dr Amuthan says: “An Australian study found that alcohol-related dementia accounted for about 20 per cent of cases of dementia in people under the age of 65.
“Excess alcohol is a risk factor for cancer, heart and liver disease, pancreatitis, mental health conditions and encephalopathy – damage or disease that affects the brain – leading to early death, ill health, and disability.”
Another study found people who consumed five or more bottles of beer in one sitting, or a bottle of wine, in mid-life were three times more likely to have dementia by the time they turned 65.
It is advised you stick to the recommended 14 units a week, to lower your risk.
STUB IT OUT
WHILE exercise is the silver bullet to protect you, smoking can be likened to pulling the trigger on dementia.
It affects your heart and blood vessels, which contributes to vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s.
In addition, toxins in cigarette smoke increase oxidative stress and inflammation, which have both been linked to Alzheimer’s.
Systematic reviews of studies across the globe have found smoking increases the risk of developing dementia by 35 to 50 per cent.
Dr Amuthan says: “Quitting smoking can reduce your risks – within minutes your pulse will return to normal, within days your breathing will start to improve, within months your circulation will improve, within a year your risk of heart attack will have halved and within ten years your risk of lung cancer will have halved.
“It is never too late to stop. NHS Smoke Free app can help.”
SLEEP allows us to rest, helps with memory consolidation and prepares us for the next day.
It’s not yet known if a bad night’s sleep causes or exacerbates dementia, but both could be true.
What scientists at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida do believe is that too much sleep – more than nine hours a night – could indicate an increased risk of dementia.
Mr Beanland says: “Your risk of dementia may reduce if you get around eight hours of shut-eye a night.
“Having a bedtime routine, avoiding screens, or reading a book or magazine can all help us to sleep well.
“For more information, look for ‘how to get to sleep’ on the NHS website. If these tips don’t work, your GP may be able to help.”
EAT TO BEAT IT
EATING your five-a-day can help your waistline and your brain, studies have shown.
Scientists at the University of Hong Kong tracked the diets of 17,700 older Chinese adults for six years and found those eating five portions of fruit and veg a day had a lower dementia risk.
Tim Beanland says: “Having too much salt in your diet – more than 6g per day, or around a heaped teaspoon – increases your blood pressure and over time this can damage the blood vessels in your brain, increasing your risk of developing dementia in later life.
“Try and eat fresh, non-processed foods as much as possible and watch out for hidden salt in processed foods like pizzas, soups and ready meals.”
TAKE THE PLUNGE
NOW it might not be that easy to get to the sea or river, but taking a dip in cold water has been found to protect the brain from degenerative diseases.
Boffins at Cambridge University identified a cold-water shock protein, which slows the onset of dementia, in the brains of a group of swimmers.
Dr Amuthan says: “The Cambridge team found a group of outdoor swimmers had markedly elevated levels of cold-shock protein RBM3 during the winter. While there are risks associated with hypothermia, a cold shower may be a much safer way to replicate this starting with a few seconds at a time.”
So if taking a dip in the North Sea or Channel isn’t convenient, try a blast of cold water at the end of your shower each day.
A LITTLE HELP FROM FRIENDS
A BUSY social life as you get older can ward off dementia, studies have shown.
If you are over 60 and see friends most days your risk is 12 per cent lower than those who have less interaction with pals.
The pandemic has put a stop to many ways of socialising, but interaction lowers the risk of isolation, and the mental health problems that come with that. Depression in later life increases your chance of dementia by 70 per cent. Dr Amuthan says: “Depression can lead to isolation resulting in fewer social interactions and worsening mental health.
“This has a knock-on effect on sleep, diet and physical health which can all contribute to your risk.
“You will find details of talking therapy services on your GP practice website where you can self-refer.
“Speak to your GP if you feel you may have depression.”
WEIGHT A MINUTE
BEING overweight increases your risk for many conditions, including dementia.
But a new study suggests belly fat is more of a problem than just being overweight.
The waist to hip ratio can give you a good idea of your risk.
Measure around the slimmest part of your waist and then the largest point of your hip and bum area.
Then divide your waist measurement by your hips. The World Health Organisation says a healthy WHR is 0.9 or less in men and 0.85 or less in women.
Dr Amuthan says: “Lifestyle changes including healthy balanced diet and regular exercise remain the most effective and sustainable methods of weight loss.
“A comprehensive NHS weight loss plan is available online. Your GP will be able to advise you what you can do and if you are eligible for any medications to help.”
IN 2020, Sir Bobby Charlton became the fifth member of the World Cup winning 1966 team to be diagnosed with dementia.
Nine former rugby players including Michael Lipman and Alix Popham are bringing action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union, having been diagnosed with dementia-related conditions.
Since the 1990s research has consistently identified head traumas as a contributory factor to dementia.
Dr Amuthan says: “The FA, Scottish FA and Irish FA jointly announced a ban on heading in training in primary school children.
“The study showed professional footballers were around 3.5 times more likely to die of dementia than their peers.
“Protecting yourself against any level of head trauma is key in reducing your dementia risk.”
CHECK YOUR TICKER
WHEN it comes to dementia and heart disease, there are several overlapping risk factors.
But new research from University College London and Oxford University found improving the health of your arteries can protect your brain and delay a dementia diagnosis.
The key is to improve arterial stiffness, where the blood vessels become thicker and stiffer as we age, making it harder for blood to flow. Mr Beanland says: “We know what’s good for your heart is good for your head.
“Keeping your body fit and well, especially your heart and blood system, helps to prevent conditions like stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
“Having these conditions gives a much higher chance of developing dementia later in life.”
VASCULAR dementia is the second most common form of the disease after Alzheimer’s, and studies have linked it to a high blood pressure (140/90mmHg or higher) in mid-life.
Johns Hopkins University in the US found people taking blood pressure medication were half as likely to develop dementia.
Dr Amuthan says: “You can buy blood pressure machines for around £30. This small investment will benefit your health in many ways for years to come.
“Uncontrolled BP can increase your risk of heart failure, coronary artery disease, stroke, chronic kidney disease, peripheral arterial disease and vascular dementia.”
To lower your blood pressure you should exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, reduce sodium in your meals, quit smoking and cut back on caffeine and alcohol.
‘IT’S TOO LATE FOR ME, NOT MY DAUGHTER’
WHEN my 73-year-old dad Mick O’Reilly was growing up, health education wasn’t what it is now.
He had no idea simple changes over the course of his lifetime could have helped him avoid dementia.
He says: “Only after my generation started smoking did we learn of the risks and by then people were addicted.
“Exercise wasn’t as popular in the 1960s and 1970s when I was in my thirties as it is now, and we didn’t know as much about what constitutes a good diet.
“But while it’s too late for me, it’s not for my daughter Clare.
“I’ve witnessed the changes she’s made since my diagnosis including cold water swimming and changing her diet.”
There are so many small incremental changes I can make which will hopefully reduce the risk of my children getting the devastating diagnosis about their mum I got about my Dad.
Dementia is such a cruel disease, it’s taking Dad away before his time completely needlessly.
If eating better, moving more, exercising and staying healthy reduces my risk, it’s worth doing.
For more advice on dementia, call the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456, or to sign up to Trek26. You can also complete a Memory Walk this March – see alzheimers.org.uk/events
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