“We already know that lifestyle affects your chances of developing Alzheimer’s,” says Professor David Smith, Founding Director of OPTIMA (Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing). Half of the cases are linked to things that you can change such as diet, exercise, the amount of sugar in your blood and your blood pressure. Social connections and keeping your brain active can also help.
However, currently the UK government and funding bodies spend almost nothing on research into dementia prevention. This year the UK government gave an extra £22 million to dementia research but none was for prevention research. Of the £140 million spent by UK research councils since 2006, a tiny 0.1% (£156,000) went to prevention research. The search for a drug to treat Alzheimer’s has consumed around $40billion but there is still no disease-modifying treatment.
“It's time we woke up to the fact that there is no miracle drug 'cure' around the corner”, says Professor Smith. “We don’t have to stop looking but we need a cultural change to take prevention seriously and the political will to make it happen.”
An example of what can be done comes from Professor Smith’s own work. A trial of over 200 people has shown that brain shrinkage in people known to be developing memory problems can be cut by 90%. What made the difference was taking high doses of three B vitamins. Those getting a placebo saw no benefit.
The vitamins work because they cut levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is often high in people at risk for Alzheimer’s. Half of all people in Britain over 60 have a high level of homocysteine.
Testing homocysteine and then lowering it with B vitamins at a cost of 10p a day is not part of current NHS or public health strategy, although it is becoming standard practice in Nordic countries. We spend a fortune lowering factors in the blood to cut the risk of heart disease. “Why don’t we consider doing the same for people at risk for Alzheimer’s?” asks Smith.
Case in point
UK charity Food for the Brain launched a prevention campaign, called Plan B, earlier this year. Their website www.foodforthebrain.org offers a free online Cognitive Function Test that takes 20 minutes to complete. It has been validated against the best tests used in NHS memory clinics and, based on the results, advises prevention steps and referral to your GP for homocysteine testing. Early screening from the age of 50 is a vital part of a prevention strategy since that is when brain shrinkage is already starting. Most people don't realise that Alzheimer's is a preventable disease if you act early enough.
Ray Hodgson, from Newcastle, is a case in point. He did the online Cognitive Function test and scored badly. He went to his GP who found his homocysteine level was too high and prescribed high dose B vitamins, including B12. Ray also improved his diet, eating more fish and less sugar, and took up exercising. "The improvement has been remarkable. My memory is much sharper and I have much more energy. I retested myself on the Cognitive Function Test and my score is now good. Also, my homocysteine level has come down. I am delighted with these results and am no longer worried that I might be in the pipeline for Alzheimer's," says Ray who had all the early warning signs for developing dementia.
While 150,000 have taken the test since its launch, I’d like the NHS and newly formed Public Health England, with a remit on health education, to encourage everyone over 50 to have early screening, as well as all GPs to proactively encourage simple prevention steps such as B vitamin supplementation, diet and lifestyle improvements.
“Current health policy is to encourage screening for high risk individuals from age 65. This is too late. Early prevention is the key but that needs a whole rethink in public health strategy." says Professor Smith and most dementia experts agree.
A free leaflet 'Six Alzheimer's Prevention Steps' is downloadable from foodforthebrain.org/preventionsteps. The full statement of the international group of experts on dementia is viewable at www.foodforthebrain.org/igedstatement.
You can also learn more about how to prevent Alzheimer’s in my book The Alzheimer’s Prevention Plan
For more information see this new article by the Daily Mail.