Posted on Jan 06, 2014 by Ruth Loftus
Some 800,000 people in the UK today suffer from some form of dementia. A condition that is strongly related to ageing, its incidence rate rapidly increases with age and dementia now appears to affect one in six people aged 80 and above. Given the relentless ‘ageing’ of the population in the UK, projections indicate that within forty years, the number of people affected will have more than doubled.
The good news however, is that there is increasing evidence that simple things such as regular exercise and sensible eating may help to keep dementia at bay. Unfortunately, despite major research around the subject, there is still only a very imperfect understanding of how it may be caused and what – if anything – might be done to treat it.
It’s important to notes that dementia itself is something of an umbrella term which embraces a number of distinct conditions - possibly as many as 100. The most significant of these is Alzheimers Disease and over 60% of people afflicted with dementia have it – though they may also suffer from one of the other variants too.
The basic facts regarding dementia are fairly well understood these days. Brains cells suffer damage which means that they do not interact as they should. Eventually, the cells die and the resulting loss of brain capacity leads to loss of memory function and and eventual tragic disintegration of personality.
Regarding Alzheimers, it is known that this results from an accumulation of proteins in and around brain cells which gradually form tangles and clumps, called plaque. This plaque was at one time thought to be the cause of the condition but current research tends to view these as the final consequence of the disease process which damages the cells.
In vascular dementia, the second most prevalent form of the disease, damage to the blood vessels which supply the brain leads to a failure of aspects of certain brain functions through a series of small strokes.
One of the fundamental problems behind researching dementia treatment regards the phenomenon known as the blood-brain barrier. Part of the brain’s design includes a feature to inhibit the transfer of material from the blood into brain cells. Generally this works very well to protect the brain from blood-borne infections, however it also means that drugs which might be able to control or reverse the causes of dementia will struggle to move through the barrier. This may mean that large doses of medication are required which in turn may be dangerous or counter productive.
Although there is some suggestion that some forms of dementia may be inherited, meaning that its development has a largely genetic dimension, in most instances there is evidently an interplay of genetic disposition, lifestyle and environment which can all exert an influence and contribute towards its development.
Another problematic feature of dementia is that it is difficult to diagnose and is indeed often diagnosed on almost a residual basis. In fact, dementia often remains technically undiagnosed and this in turn means that testing drugs and other interventions is challenging as there is no certainty of the precise nature of the condition that a particular patient has.
However, amid all this general despondency about the condition there is perhaps a glimmer of some hope. Evidence has suggested that if the brain is kept active through simple things such as reading, writing and other stimulating activities, then the deterioration in its functioning in later life may be slowed.
Other recent research has suggested that, even for people already suffering from dementia, regular exercise may mean that loss of some aspects of brain function (as the loss of ability to undertake simple tasks) is slowed.
Generally the advice of doctors with regard to dementia follows a very familiar mantra – exercise, sensible diet and lifestyle may all at least slow the onset of this uncertain condition.