Dementia study sparks call for prevention research in Australia

The CEO of Alzheimer’s Australia has called for more research into preventative treatments following the publication of a UK study that suggested rates of new dementia cases may have dropped sharply in England.

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Researchers looked at three areas of England in the early 1990s, then again between 2008 and 2013, and found rates of new dementia cases had fallen by around 20 per cent.

The drop was particularly marked for men, with the rate of new cases down by half between the two studies for men aged 65-69.

Women aged 80-84 saw a small increase, but there was a slight drop for women in other age groups.

However, Alzheimer’s expert Professor Stephen Robinson at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology cast some doubt on the study’s findings.

“There’s good evidence that what’s good for your heart is good for your brain.”

He said the 1990s rate of dementia among men identified by the study was anomalously high, potentially suggesting some local issue like a disease cluster, before the statistics corrected themselves in the later study.

Prof. Robinson also said other studies generally found similar rates of dementia for men and women, potentially explaining why the drop was extreme for men but negligible for women. 

Dementia has no cure and is the second leading cause of death in Australia.

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Alzheimer’s Australia CEO Carol Bennett said there was not enough data to determine whether the incidence of dementia was falling in Australia, but stressed that the total number of dementia cases was on the rise.

More than 350,000 Australians are currently living with the condition, with that number expected to rise to 400,000 in less than five years, according to research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. That study assumed the condition’s prevalence would remain steady.

Prof. Robinson said the ballooning number of dementia patients in Australia was explained by the ageing population and rising life expectancy.

Ms Bennett said the UK study results are promising, but more investment in research and treatment is needed.

“We’re hopeful that we might have a similar pattern emerging in Australia,” she said.

“We can’t afford to become complacent… it’s one of those things that creates more fear in the community than almost anything else, so it needs attention.”

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The researchers behind the UK study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, did not deeply examine the reasons for the decline, but did say preventative measures could be staying the onset of dementia.

Ms Bennett said quitting smoking and lowering cholesterol levels could help minimise risk.

“There’s good evidence that what’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” she said.

Prof. Robinson said regular cardiovascular exercise and group exercises like line dancing had been shown to reduce dementia risk, along with early treatment of sleep apnea.

He said a diet rich in omega three but low in saturated fat could also help.

With the 2016 Budget approaching, Ms Bennett said more funding for dementia research is needed.

“I‘d like to see much more investment, certainly in care and preventative health… we need to invest in a healthier population.”  

However, she said investment in prevention should not come at the expense of looking for a cure, or supporting current dementia patients and the estimated 1.2 million Australians who care for them.

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