There has been lots in the news this week about Alzheimer’s and dementia with information about the prevalence of these brain disorders and what can be done to prevent them.

I decided to write this blog to collate the current thinking on this issue and also to give you  advice on how you can help yourself through lifestyle choices to reduce your chance of developing these disorders.  Much of the research focuses on diet and exercise and I have written a few blogs previously on the Mediterranean diet giving advice on adopting a healthier diet (you can click on the links at the bottom of this blog to view them).

Dementia is an umbrella term describing a serious deterioration in mental functions, such as memory, language, orientation and judgement.  Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for two-thirds of cases, is the most well-known.  There is no cure for any type of dementia but it is know that lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, controlling blood sugar and blood pressure can prevent the disease.

G8 Summit on Dementia

A group of 106 scientific and medical experts on dementia from 35 countries are calling on the G8 countries, who met in London earlier this week, to focus on preventing dementia worldwide.

Alzheimer’s Disease International estimate that by 2050 there will be a 135 million people affected by this disease worldwide, currently the figure is 44 million.

The UK government gave £20 million this year for research to tackle the dementia epidemic, yet none of it has been spent on prevention. Since 2006 the UK research councils have spent £140 million on research, but only 0.1% (£156,000) has been spent on prevention.

Lifestyle and diet

However, various studies have shown the importance of lifestyle factors in preventing these degenerative diseases.

A study at Cardiff University found that exercise plays a significant role in reducing dementia and other factors including diet and not smoking had an impact on preventing illnesses developing in older age.

The researchers found the five factors that were integral to helping avoid disease were:

  • regular exercise
  • not smoking
  • low bodyweight
  • healthy diet
  • alcohol intake


People in the study who followed four of these had a 60% decline in dementia and cognitive decline rates, with exercise named as the strongest mitigating factor.  They also had 70% fewer instances of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, compared with people who followed none of the factors.

Professor Peter Elwood, who led the study on behalf of Cardiff School of Medicine, said healthy behaviour was far more beneficial than any medical treatment or preventative procedure.

Leading doctors including  Dr Clare Gerada, the former chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, and Dr David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum have called upon the Government to focus on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.  In an open letter to the Health Secretary they said that persuading people to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil was  ‘possibly the best strategy currently available’ for preventing Alzheimer’s and other memory-robbing diseases.

Dr Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist, said: ‘The evidence base for the Mediterranean diet in preventing all of the chronic diseases plaguing the western world is overwhelming. This includes cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

David Smith, Emeritus professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and founder of the research project OPTIMA (Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing)  in his interview in the Daily Mail, says that millions have been wasted on drug research when prevention should be the way forward in tackling these brain diseases.

He is calling for a programme of research to look into all the factors that can contribute to Alzheimers including obesity and diabetes. He cites trials that have looked into the use of B vitamins and their role in preventing brain shrinkage and US and European studies that have researched the role of omega 3 fatty acids in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.

UK charity Food for the Brain launched a prevention campaign, called Plan B, earlier this year. Their website offers a free online Cognitive Function Test that takes 20 minutes to complete. It has been validated against the best tests used in NHS memory clinicsand, based on the results, advises prevention steps and referral to your GP for homocysteine testing.


Trustram-Eve, C., de Jager C. A. (2013) Piloting and validation of a novel self-administered online cognitive screening tool in normal older persons: the Cognitive Function Test. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2013 Jun 11. doi: 10.1002/gps.3993

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