Lizzy Buchan: Environmental risks could help to understand dementia

A new shortlist of environmental risk factors could help experts to understand dementia.

A new shortlist of environmental risk factors could help experts to understand dementia.

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Everyday factors may help us to understand dementia, says Lizzy Buchan

The cruelty of dementia knows no bounds.

Its insidious ability to strip a person of their memories and sense of self inspires fear in many of us, not only for ourselves but for our loved ones too.

I have written before about how media coverage of dementia needs to be handled sensitively, becauase there is still so much we do not know about the devastating neurological condition, which is known to affect around 90,000 people living in Scotland.

Many more of us may suffer from dementia in the decades to come, as medicine allows us to live longer.

The condition costs the NHS around £26 billion each year in the UK, although the human cost is far greater. Finding treatments or even, dare I whisper, a cure, for dementia has become one of the great scientific challenges of our time, as fear of the disease outstrips concern over cancer – the former big bad monster.

But before treatments can be found, there needs to be greater understanding of the workings of the disease.

Therefore research published this week by Edinburgh University into environmental risk factors should be welcomed.

Genetics and lifestyle factors, such as obesity, diabetes and smoking, are known to increase our risk of developing dementia, yet around a third of the risks we face remain unaccounted for.

The Edinburgh scientists believe that everyday factors such as traffic fumes and lack of sunshine could make up this missing piece of the puzzle, after scrutinising all the existing research worldwide.

The most important factors on the shortlist were air pollution, impure water and vitamin D deficiency.

Vitamin D, or the lack of it, is already implicated in conditions such as multiple sclerosis but its association with dementia is still being explored.

Previous studies have suggested that living further north made it more likely for people to suffer dementia, which some scientists believe is due to a lack of the sunshine vitamin.

It is of particular concern to Scots, who are exposed to less vitamin D from the sunshine than other parts of the UK.

The team are cautious about interpreting the findings, and rightly so, as the increased risk is very small.

There is not enough evidence to suggest these environmental factors cause dementia, just a blurrily titled “association”.

However, there is also much to be gained as the findings open up a rich new seam of research possibilities.

If vitamin D is linked to dementia then preventative measures could be as simple as getting outdoors more or taking a daily vitamin supplement.

There are many things that are likely to increase the risk of dementia but not all are easily preventable.

After all, old age is one of the greatest risk factors for dementia but no-one believes we can stop ourselves from ageing.

This tantalising checklist of environmental factors must be investigated further before any solid conclusions can be made.

Yet there should be comfort in the fact that experts are really starting to believe that dementia can be prevented.

That belief is a major step forward on the long road to a cure.

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