Spotlight on dementia: What is it, why does it happen, and what can we do about it?

Dementia is an illness that touches all of our lives, and every three minutes another person is diagnosed.

From the notorious Alzheimer’s disease, to vascular dementia and rare conditions such as CJD, dementia comes in many shapes and sizes. Alzheimers is by far the most common form, and is thought to account for 60-80% of cases. Last year more than 61,000 people died of dementia, accounting for 11.6% of all deaths in the UK. This means that dementia has overtaken heart disease as the number one cause of death in England and Wales.

Why are we seeing such an increase in dementia?

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly there is an aging population in the UK, therefore there are more elderly people, and the elderly are far more likely to be affected by dementia. Doctors are also getting much better at diagnosing dementia, and realising the contribution it makes when writing death certificates.

What causes dementia?

This really depends on which type we’re talking about. Alzheimer’s disease is caused by faulty proteins called tau and amyloid that fold incorrectly and then accumulate in the brain. Normally tau is very useful! It helps stabilise the cell, giving it structure. In patients with Alzheimer’s, tau folds in such a way that it forms useless lumps that only gets in the way, preventing essential nutrients from getting to the cells. Without food the cells die off. This is a slow process and can take many years.

Vascular dementia happens when blood vessels that supply blood to the brain gradually become blocked or narrowed. Strokes can cause a sudden loss of oxygen to areas of the brain, but not all stroke sufferers will go on to get vascular dementia.

How close are we to a cure?

Scientists are investing thousands of man hours trying to understand and make drugs to treat Alzheimers and other forms of dementia. There are drugs available that help the brain to function despite the misfolded proteins, but there are currently no drugs that prevent the build up of these proteins, or break down the ones that have already formed. A new drug in trials has given everyone hope. Aducanumab has been shown to reduce the build up of amyloid, the first protein that builds up, however, it can have side effects that need more work to fully understand.

Is there anything you can do to prevent yourself from getting Alzheimer’s?

So far there isn’t any evidence that diet can make a significant difference to your Alzheimer’s risk. There is some evidence that those who exercise regularly throughout their life time are less likely to get Alzheimer’s. Brain training exercises can reduce the cognitive decline in elderly people, use it or lose it! The most important thing that you can do to help prevent dementia seems to be to get a good night’s sleep. It has recently been shown that during sleep, fluid channels in the brain open up and cerebrospinal fluid washes through and rinses out any amyloid protein that has built up during the day. If you struggle with sleep get in touch with us, we can help!

What about other types of dementia?

Keeping your heart healthy helps reduce your risk of getting vascular dementia. Keeping a healthy blood pressure and cholesterol in check can help reduce the risk of getting vascular dementia. 

Dementia is something we will all be faced with at some time, in some way or another. Early diagnosis and early treatment can give people with mild symptoms many more happy years, but so far there is no permanent cure. Hopefully in the future we will be able to do so much more, our thoughts are with all the scientists, doctors and nurses who are working tirelessly to stop dementia from robbing us of our loved ones.