Philippa Taylor

New research finds that dementia can be reduced by 60% for people who live healthily

Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at CMF. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

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As Christmas approaches, many of us will be taking some holiday from work. Christmas provides a welcome time and opportunity to celebrate the birth of our Saviour, but also to unwind and spend time with friends and families. Christmas holiday time can provide us with an excuse to indulge a little more than usual and, given the short days and cold weather, to hibernate inside.

So it was perhaps timely to see a headline in The Times this week, covering a new piece of research on dementia, claiming that healthy living, including regular exercise and eating well, is associated with reduced risk of dementia.  This comes only a few weeks after another new study found that changes in diet, exercise, stress management and social support can significantly slow ageing.

The conclusion from the new study on dementia is that a sustained healthy lifestyle will bring greatest progress in the fight against the condition.

I assume the release of this new research is timed to fit with the G8 conference on dementia in London this week, and its ambitious, overly optimistic, political promises to bring an end to it by 2025!

The problem is a big one. With an ever increasing elderly population (about 85,000 of today’s 65 year-olds will live to 100) it is predicted that there may be a doubling of people with dementia by 2050, so it makes sense to be tackling the issue now, not just for the elderly but for those in middle age, or younger.

Scientists at Cardiff University followed over 2,000 men from a small town in South Wales. The men were repeatedly questioned and examined for over 30 years, studying the link between disease and five key components of a healthy lifestyle: regular exercise, eating fruit and vegetables (three portions daily), a healthy bodyweight, low alcohol intake and not smoking. The findings were published in the journal PLoS One.

There are some shortcomings in the research (it cannot demonstrate cause and effect; the study relied on self reporting of diet and exercise which is notoriously unreliable; it is not clear what age and social class adjustments have been made and only some types of dementia may be helped by a more healthy lifestyle) nevertheless the findings fit with other studies (see here too) and the researcher’s message is an important one:

People must take responsibility for preventing dementia, rather than just waiting for a cure. Living healthily is associated with 60% decline in dementia and cognitive decline, with exercise being the strongest mitigating factor.

The study also found 70% fewer instances of diabetes, heart disease and stroke compared with people who did not have a healthy lifestyle. Yet researchers found that only 1% of the sample had all five healthy habits, with numbers unchanged over three decades. It was those who consistently followed four out of the five healthy habits who experienced a 60% decline in dementia and cognitive decline. Lead researcher, Professor Peter Elwood said that:

The size of reduction in the instance of disease owing to these simple healthy steps has really amazed us and is of enormous importance in an ageing population…Following a healthy lifestyle confers surprisingly large benefits to health. Healthy behaviours have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure.’

The study states: ‘These reductions, and especially those in cognitive function, are of enormous importance in an ageing population.’ If half the men in the study had taken up just one extra healthy habit 30 years ago, there would have been a 13% reduction in dementia today, along with a 12% drop in diabetes and a 6% less vascular disease.

The focus of the G8 summit this week has been on finding new cures. More research into the causes, prevention and treatment of dementia is essential, yet this study emphasises the key role that a sustained healthy lifestyle plays in prevention. The researchers themselves actually put greater weight of responsibility onto individuals to live a healthy lifestyle, and not simply to rely only on Governments to cure it:

Prevention is the responsibility of the individual. We shouldn’t dilute that…The reality is the health service helps people live with their disease [rather than cure it]. Drugs are not the answer to this.

The research found that exercise accounts for a significant chunk of the beneficial effects on dementia, even more than diet. The Bible tells us that physical training is of some value (although godliness is of far greater value). At a time of year, and living in a country where we are surrounded by an excess of processed, high sugar, often cheap, fibreless food, as well as a drinking culture, on display everywhere in order to tempt us to eat in excess, it is hard to say ‘no’. But Christ calls us to live to higher standards, and he gives us the means to achieve them. We have an abundance of wonderful, healthy, nutritious foods easily available to us here in the West, and we have legs designed for walking (or swimming, running or cycling!). Christmas provides a perfect time to use them.

Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy



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