I felt an icy trickle down my back when I heard the news. If you can remember back that far, last month’s report that our memory starts to get worse in our forties was a bit of a wakeup call. Five out of six people who get to 80 won’t get dementia. But one in six people will. It is set to become one of the most important features of care on Tiree as the rate is going to double in the next 40 years. Indeed, it is very much in our thinking at Cùram as we plan how we could look after the next generation.
Two thirds of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. This is when the brain cells get clogged up with protein sludge. Another one in five have what is called vascular dementia – lots of tiny strokes, one after the other. There are other sorts of dementia too, and it is becoming increasingly important to try and find out which sort people have. The treatment is slightly different and the dementias progress in different ways.
But can we do anything about the wearing out of what has been called the most complex thing in the universe – the human brain? We’re not sure, to be honest. Dementia is such a slow process: you would have to take a thousand people, do something to one group, nothing to another –
and wait twenty years to see what works best. But exercising mind and body seems to be the key. A lot of the evidence about this comes from the poor old laboratory mouse (look away now if you find this distasteful). There is a strain of mice now which has been bred to get dementia – at 7 months of age they are showing advanced signs. But if they are given free access to a running wheel from their first weeks they are less likely to develop dementia changes, in their behaviour and in their brains. And if you allow the same strain of pregnant mice to run as much as they want on a treadmill, their offspring have less dementia changes in their brains when they grow up too. The brain needs a lot of energy, and a lot of blood. Keeping your circulation healthy is important. On the medical side this means good blood pressure, good cholesterol and good sugar. I’m sorry to say – if you have diabetes you’re a bit more likely to get dementia in old age.
And a big study in humans this year in Texas gives a useful pointer. 17 years ago they put 60 000 people (yes, 60 000 – they don’t do things by halves in Texas!) on a treadmill and measured how fit they were. Then they looked at how many of them died from dementia over the years. The fittest two thirds in the study were half as likely to die from dementia as the least fit. Of course, that doesn’t prove it was the exercise that did it. People who keep physically fit are more likely to be healthy in other ways too. But another study found that the more muscle people have, the less likely they are to get dementia.
On the mental front, another smaller study recently found that older people who used their brains a lot when they were younger had healthier looking brain scans. And we’re not talking Einsteins here. The best way to use your brain? Talk to people – and be interested in what they say. We use huge amounts of brain power remembering who has said what, to whom. Sitting and watching television look like the worst things to be doing if you want to keep your brain active.
Dementia is not a welcoming thought and there are no guarantees. The fittest granny in the world can get dementia if that’s in her nature. But, if walking and talking can keep it at bay for a bit, I’m up for having a go!