Dementia: Sorting the facts from the fiction
There are more than 850,000 people currently living with dementia in the UK – and it is the country’s biggest killer. But what causes it and can you prevent it? AMY PACKER unravels the myths and misinformation surrounding one of the biggest health challen
ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE AND DEMENTIA ARE THE SAME THING False
DEMENTIA is the name for a group of symptoms that include problems with memory, thinking, problemsolving, language and perception. It can be caused by different diseases that affect the brain. Alzheimer’s is just one of these, albeit the most common.
SMOKING CAN LEAD TO DEMENTIA Probably
“ALTHOUGH we can’t say that smoking definitely causes dementia, there is strong evidence it can increase your risk,” says Dr James Pickett, head of research at Alzheimer’s Society.
According to the World Health Organization, 14% of Alzheimer’s disease cases worldwide can potentially be attributed to smoking. The two most common forms of dementia, – Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia – have both been linked to problems with the vascular system, and smoking increases the risk of strokes or small bleeds in the brain, risk factors for dementia.
“It’s difficult to know the extent that tobacco alone increases your risk of developing it,” says Dr Pickett.
ONLY ELDERLY PEOPLE GET IT False
WHILE age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, at least 42,000 people in the UK under the age of 65 are living with the condition. This is called early-onset dementia. Certain types of dementia, like fronto-temporal (FTD), more typically set in before the age of 65, and rare genetic mutations can lead to dementia in your 30s or even during childhood.
A MEDITERRANEAN DIET LOWERS YOUR RISK True
MEDITERRANEAN diets are traditionally high in fruits, vegetables, legumes and cereals, with moderate consumption of oily fish and dairy, while being low in meat, sugar and saturated fat. Most fat in this type of diet comes from olive oil, and alcohol is consumed in moderation with meals.
“Inflammation in the brain is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and there are signs that following this diet could reduce such chemical inflammation,” says Dr Pickett. “Recent research has also suggested that the low levels of cholesterol in this diet may be linked with better memory.”
DRINKING RED WINE CAN HELP PROTECT AGAINST DEMENTIA False
THERE is a small body of evidence which suggests some chemicals in red wine may be good for the brain, but it’s not clear whether it is beneficial in reducing dementia risk.
However drinking too much regularly can lead to alcoholrelated brain damage. Although not specifically a dementia, many of the symptoms, like poor planning and organisational skills, problems with attention and difficulty in controlling emotions, are the same.
DEMENTIA IS CAUSED BY ALUMINIUM PANS False
A LINK was first suggested in 1965, after researchers found that rabbits injected with an extremely high dosage of aluminium developed twisted fibres of a protein, known as tau tangles, in their brains – a symptom of dementia.
Since then, researchers have investigated the relationship between aluminium and dementia, but no evidence has been found that the metal contributes in any way.
ADDING CINNAMON TO YOUR FOOD WILL CURE ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE False
RESEARCHERS in Tel Aviv University in Israel and Northwestern University in Illinois, US, examined the effect of an extract from cinnamon bark – not the same as the cinnamon spice you might find in your local supermarket – on the formation of amyloid plaques, a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Although the study showed that the extract from cinnamon bark did help improve brain function in mice, the levels of cinnamon a person would have to eat to replicate the results would be so great it would actually be toxic,” says Dr Pickett.
COCONUT OIL KEEPS YOUR BRAIN WORKING False
THE theory goes that brain cells in someone with Alzheimer’s are not as good at getting their energy from blood sugars as they would usually be in a healthy brain. Coconut oil is rumoured to be able to give the brain a boost by providing an alternative energy source.
“The reality is that there is limited evidence to show this actually works,” adds Dr Pickett. “A trial into the relationship between coconut oil and dementia was started in the US, but was cancelled due to lack of participants.”
DOING A-LEVELS LOWERS YOUR RISK True
RESEARCH by The Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention and care (2017) estimated that 8% of the total number of dementia cases could be reduced if everyone continued in education beyond the age of 15.
“This is because completing secondary education allows you to build up a ‘cognitive reserve’ – a
resilience to cognitive decline caused by the brain strengthening its networks,” says Dr Pickett.
TV ADDICTS ARE MORE AT RISK THAN GYM BUNNIES True
“WE always say that if you want to try and reduce your risk of dementia, what is good for your heart is good for your head,” says Dr Pickett.
“Excluding other factors like genetics or pre-existing conditions, people who have a more sedentary lifestyle do tend to be more at risk of poor cardiovascular health, depression and diabetes, which are major risk factors for dementia.”
PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD HEAD INJURIES ARE MORE PRONE
ALTHOUGH there is increasing evidence of a link between brain injuries – which may be caused by anything from car crashes to repeatedly heading footballs – and dementia, the short answer is we don’t know enough yet.
WOMEN ARE MORE LIKELY TO GET ALZHEIMER’S True
WOMEN with dementia outnumber men almost two to one and brain cells die a lot faster in women.
“The truth is we don’t fully know why this is the case, but one of the main theories rests with the female hormone, oestrogen,” says Dr Pickett. “It has a protective effect on blood pressure and brain cognition, but during menopause women stop producing as much, which could explain why more women than men have dementia.”
EATING CURRY CAN PREVENT IT False
CURCUMIN, an extract of turmeric, has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-amyloid (a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease) properties. However, this research was very early stage, and follow-up clinical trials found curcumin didn’t show any promise as a treatment.
YOU ARE MORE LIKELY TO GET DEMENTIA IF ONE OF YOUR PARENTS HAD IT False
MOST dementias are not passed down through the family, and more than 99% of Alzheimer’s disease cases are not hereditary. Genetic links are more common in rarer types of dementia, like FTD, but this makes up a tiny fraction of all cases.
“About 3% of people develop Alzheimer’s disease before they are 60 and in these instances it is most likely due to a faulty gene being passed through the family,” says Dr Pickett.
■ ALZHEIMER’S Society is a partner in Join Dementia Research (joindementiaresearch.nihr.ac.uk), a nationwide service that allows people to register their interest in participating in dementia research and be matched to suitable studies. For more information on risk factors and dementia research, visit alzheimers.org.uk
WHEN we’re fused to our thoughts we react to them as though our thoughts are real, truthful, important and unquestionable. In this state of fusion we react to thoughts such as “I’m useless” as though we really are and thoughts like “I’m going to fail” as though failure is a forgone conclusion.
The coping strategies we use to try to control these types of painful or unwanted thoughts often work to make us feel better in the short term but lower our quality of life in the long term.
Think for a minute about the coping strategies that you use to try to control difficult thoughts.
Perhaps you avoid certain situations, people or places or put off important tasks or decisions? Maybe you revert to denial, selfcriticism or blaming others or use alcohol, drugs or medication to quieten your mind?
Or perhaps you throw yourself into welcome distractions? We all do these things; it’s an entirely normal part of being human. However, once we realise
A Mediterranean diet could lower your risk of dementia
Aluminium pans haven’t been linked to dementia
Living a more active lifestyle could lower the risk of dementia
Change the way you handle your thoughts