The more we learn about dementia, the greater our chances of delaying or managing the onset of the condition. Many of the factors known to impact the severity of the disease are already known. They include aspects of our lifestyle that we have a degree of control over, such as protecting our hearing, or maintaining physical fitness in mid to late life and avoiding smoking. While these alterations are sensible for a healthy life in general, they are particularly important for those who might have a genetic predisposition for dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.
The Lancet Commission on Dementia Intervention, Prevention and Care listed nine factors that directly impact the disease in 2017. At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this year, they extended the list.
In addition to controlling obesity, blood pressure, diabetes, hearing loss, increasing the level of education in earlier life, keeping physically fit, seeking help for depression, reducing social isolation, and quitting smoking, twenty-eight world leaders in dementia research have linked excessive alcohol consumption, head injuries and air pollution to their reports.
Most of these issues can be managed by individuals, but not everyone has the luxury to move to a location to assure good air quality, especially when their report states that approximately 50 million people are affected by dementia across the world, with a tentative prediction that the number will more than triple by 2050. Low and middle-income countries are particularly vulnerable to an increased number of cases, with women statistically more likely to develop the illness than men.
Some countries, such as the United States, England and France have seen a notable fall in dementia numbers, indicating that the inclusion of preventative measures could be starting to work.
We can all alter our lifestyle to some extent, choosing to lower or cut out alcohol, quit smoking, eat healthily and increase levels of exercise, but there are worrying trends linked to environmental pollution that need to be targeted at a political level.
Air pollution declined significantly during the recent global lockdowns, and is steadily increasing once again as countries ease their virus prevention restrictions. We now have evidence to prove that air quality is essential for long term health of every nation, and yet little is done to make any significant improvements. When the evidence for leaded paint, and petroleum products with added lead pointed directly towards brain damage in children, legislation was relatively swift to prevent its continued use.
The same needs to happen now, before the next generation of elderly people overwhelm our care homes and hospices in an epidemic of dementia patients.
Similarly, social isolation has, and continues to be a growing problem with all age groups of society. Families may have had a rare 3 months or so of quality time spent together, but those in single households or medically shielding themselves are vulnerable to further mental health conditions such as depression, another factor on the list.
Dementia is a disease which not only strips us of our cherished memories and eventually our dignity, but has a catastrophic effect on the family members left behind. This is a mental health time bomb of monumental proportions.
Politicians are scrambling to reinvigorate economies right across the world. What better time to ensure that policies are tailored to incorporate greener solutions that will ultimately improve the living conditions of people in towns and cities, where so many mental health issues have been allowed to proliferate without challenge.
We need to work together as one world to bring about global solutions to this devastating disease, one whose severity is increasingly influenced by environmental and societal conditions in which we are all immersed.
The Lancet Commission have stated that by modifying those twelve risk factors over the course of a life, 40% of cases could be significantly delayed or prevented.
The time to act is now.