A doctor looks at Alzheimer's in a PET brain scan. Picture: AP Photo/Matt York
A doctor looks at Alzheimer's in a PET brain scan. Picture: AP Photo/Matt York

World Alzheimer’s Day: Healthier lifestyles can prevent or delay dementia

By Lifestyle Reporter Time of article published Sep 21, 2020

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More than 50 million people globally live with dementia, a figure expected to treble in the next 30 years, but up to 40 percent of cases could be prevented or delayed by reducing risks – including getting exercise, eating healthily, and staying mentally fit and socially active.

Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, diabetes, hypertension, depression and air pollution are among the 12 risk factors for dementia identified by the medical journal The Lancet’s Commission on Dementia in July 2020, along with lower education, traumatic brain injuries, hearing impairment, physical inactivity, low social contact and obesity.

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common forms of dementia, a set of progressive brain syndromes which affect memory, thinking, behaviour and emotion.

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Speaking on World Alzheimer’s Day on September 21, Dr Sihle Nhlabathi of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop) and consultant psychiatrist at Stikland Hospital, said the risk factors were inter-linked, making it important to address healthy lifestyle choices as a whole and from an early age.

Although dementia mainly affects people over the age of 65 and is the leading cause of disability among the elderly, about one in 1 000 people can be affected from as early as their forties, and Nhlabathi said this “young onset dementia” could be more common due to a global increase in sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diet choices.

“These poor lifestyle choices lead to diseases like hypertension, diabetes and vascular disease. These are known risk factors for developing dementia early and they can be modified by changing one’s lifestyle and thus lowering the risk of dementia at both a young and older age,” he said.

“Although behaviour change is difficult and some associations (of risk factors to dementia) might not be purely causal, individuals have a huge potential to reduce their dementia risk,” The Lancet dementia commission report said.

The report added that the potential for preventing dementia through modifying risk factors was even greater in low- and middle-income countries (such as South Africa) which have a higher rate of dementia, and where rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes and smoking are higher.

“Another disease that is very important in our South African context is the high prevalence of HIV. Persons living with HIV now live longer due to advances in ARV access. However, HIV targets the central nervous system very early in illness and this results in HIV-associated dementia in the long term,” Nhlabathi said.

With symptoms of memory loss, difficulty performing familiar tasks, language difficulties such as struggling to find the right words, disorientation and personality and mood changes, dementia impacts the daily lives of people affected by the condition and those who care for them as they become increasingly unable to care for themselves.

The disease is often surrounded by misunderstandings and stigma, and can leave both those affected and their caregivers feeling alone and isolated from the world.

There is no known cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but some medications can slow the progress of the disease and control symptoms, and The Lancet commission recommends that physical health is important to maintain cognitive abilities in patients with dementia.

Nhlabathi said that treatment for dementia also needed to include social and emotional support both for the person affected and those caring for them, often close family members.

“Caregivers of people with significant mental illness are at high risk for anxiety, depression and burnout. They often have a low quality of life and experience a high workload as they carry the burden of providing 24-hour care and attention, and experience the distress of a loved one’s condition deteriorating and the person becoming unfamiliar.”

Nhlabathi advises caregivers of people with dementia to engage with the patient’s health-care team and become informed about the nature of the condition and how it progresses, and to seek advice and support on caring for a person with dementia from organisations such as Alzheimer’s South Africa (https://alzheimers.org.za/) and Dementia SA (https://www.dementiasa.org/).

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