Studies have shown that dementia has overtaken cancer as our most feared disease. This is mainly because of the improvement in the outlook for people diagnosed with cancer due to the improvement in diagnosis and treatment.
Treatment for dementia can currently only slow the progress of the disease and alleviate some of the symptoms. Scientists are hopeful that new treatment will be developed in the next few years that may halt or even reverse dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and it affects more than 520,000 people in the UK. It is thought to result in a loss of connections between cells in the brain due to the build up of abnormal proteins. The second most common cause is vascular dementia. This is caused by death of brain cells due to an interruption in their blood supply caused by either a stoke or diseased blood vessels in the brain.
Symptoms of dementia
- Memory loss
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
- Problems with abstract thinking
- Personality change
- Mood changes
- Disorientation with familiar things and places
- Poor judgement which can place them in danger
- Misplacing things
- Loss of motivation and initiative
- Lack of personal hygiene and care
Research has uncovered some important factors that can affect our risk of developing dementia. The risk of us developing the disease depends on a combination of these. Some such as age and genes cannot be controlled but others can.
- Genetics and family history - If there is a family history of Alzheimer’s then you are more at risk. Some studies suggest that if you have a parent or a sibling with the disease your overall risk is increased five or six fold.
- Age – Dementia usually starts after the age of 65 and the risk increases with age. One in six 80 year olds are affected. As we age the brain becomes less agile and connections become weaker.
- Obesity – One theory is that fat releases harmful hormones that damage brain cells. The other risks associated with being overweight such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and the furring up of arteries increase the risk of vascular dementia.
- Diabetes – Type 2 diabetes raises the risk of dementia. This is because a raised blood sugar damages the blood vessels in the brain which increases the risk of stroke and vascular dementia. It also causes inflammation which may increase the abnormal proteins in the brain.
- Smoking – Smoking may increase your chances of getting dementia and other vascular diseases.
- Blood pressure – High blood pressure can cause stroke or cause inflammation which leads to a build up of abnormal proteins.
- Stress – Chronic stress raises the levels of the hormone cortisol. There are cortisol receptors in the part of the brain which is important for learning and memory. If cortisol levels remain high these receptors become saturated which damages brain cells.
- Depression – Late-life depression especially in men may be a risk factor or an indication of the onset of dementia.
- High oestrogen levels – Women taking oestrogen and progesterone years after the menopause may be at greater risk of developing the disease.
- Heavy alcohol intake – While a moderate amount of alcohol has been shown to be beneficial to health in some studies, Binge or heavy drinking have both been linked to an increased risk of developing dementia.
A leading dementia specialist has said that “dementia is not inevitable”. It is thought that in a quarter of people destined to develop the most common causes of dementia it can be stopped or significantly delayed. It is never too early or late to start thinking about what you could do to protect yourself.