July 5th-11th this year is Alzheimer’s Awareness Week, organised by the charity Alzheimer’s Research. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for almost two thirds of reported cases in the elderly. According to the charity Alzheimer’s Research, 700,000 people in the UK are affected by dementia with numbers increasing rapidly. Up to 55% are affected by Alzheimer’s, and two thirds of these are women. Risk of developing dementia increases with age, from 1 in 20 for those over 65, to 1 in 5 over the age of 80.
There are four stages of Alzheimer’s disease, each representing a further deterioration of cognitive and physiological function. Since Alzheimer’s is a slow progressive disease, it affects people’s lives for many years and is draining for both patient and carer. Symptoms in the early stages include mild cognitive impairments such as short-term memory loss, some loss of vocabulary, inability to acquire new information and problems executing simple everyday tasks such as dressing or writing. As the disease progresses, sufferers become ever more dependent on a carer for most of their daily tasks. Communication becomes increasingly impaired, and longer-term memory loss (including failing to recognise family and friends) sets in. It is not uncommon for the suffer to begin experiencing severe emotional outbursts, further increasing the strain placed upon the family and carers.
New research suggests that, contrary to popular belief, there really are ways to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Studies show that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, whole-wheat bread, cereals, olive oil, fish and even red wine can help lessen the chance of suffering from Alzheimer’s, or reduce the severity and speed of deterioration. Other studies point to the virtues of vitamins B12, B3, vitamin C and folic acid,, while yet others suggest that the spice turmeric could prevent brain damage (as was the case with research involving mice).
A growing body of evidence from biological, observational and epidemiological studies suggests that there is a protective effect of omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids against dementia. Encouragingly, as more research evidence comes to light, scientists are discovering that supplementation with certain omega-3 fatty acids not only plays a role as an anti-inflammatory agent but that these important fats may also slow the degeneration of brain tissue and, in some cases, improve motor function.
Even though a change to a more Mediterranean-style diet may not be enough to prevent the onset of dementia, it is important to include such foods in the diet, as research does indicate that it could help to keep it more manageable and at the early stages for longer. Other important lifestyle changes which can help reduce the risk of developing dementia include giving up smoking, drinking alcohol only in moderation, reducing salt intake and taking regular exercise. What’s more, engaging in mentally stimulating activities such as reading, playing a musical instrument, or even completing logic puzzles, such as crosswords and Sudoku, can help prevent the deterioration of brain function and reduce the onset of dementia. Alzheimer’s Research suggests that taking part in exercise or a picking up a hobby is also a good way to help relieve the depression often associated with dementia.
 NHS website. Understanding Dementia [online]. Available: http://www.nhs.uk/pathways/dementia/Pages/Landing.aspx [accessed 19th May 2009]. Alzheimer’s Society website. See also Available: http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?categoryID=200131&documentID=106 [accessed 19th May 2009]. See also http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?categoryID=200120&documentID=341 [accessed 19th May 2009].
 MRC website. Available: http://www.mrc.ac.uk/Achievementsimpact/Healthtopic/Dementias/MRC002031 [accessed 19th May 2009].
 Alzheimer’s Society website. Available: http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?categoryID=200120&documentID=341 [accessed 19th May 2009].
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