IMPLEMENTING a sugar tax could make substantial progress in reducing dementia rates, a Scottish scientist will tell a conference this week.
The debate over the introduction of a levy on sugar has focused on tackling obesity, but dementia expert Professor Craig Ritchie has now suggested it could help tackle the devastating neurological disease which affects more than 90,000 Scots.
Prof Ritchie, director of the newly-launched Centre for Dementia Prevention at Edinburgh University, said people in their thirties and forties already have the diseases which cause dementia, and better lifestyle choices can help to increase the brain’s resilience.
The “incredible consumption of sugar” could lead to dementia rates rising in 20 years time due to increasing prevalence of obesity and diabetes, he warned.
Prof Ritchie said: “We will achieve much through drug treatments, but the vast majority of our reduction in incidence is going to be achieved through public health policy.
“If we wanted to reduce the incidence of dementia by a substantial amount then we should put a big tax on sugar.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that high glycemic index diets have an impact on the risk of diabetes, and a risk of you developing dementia in later life.
“We are going to wake up in our seventies with a huge problem.”
People need to start believing that dementia can be prevented, Prof Ritchie will tell an audience at Alzheimer Scotland’s Christmas Lecture in Edinburgh on Thursday.
He said: “I think where we are now with how we perceive dementia is end-stage dementia, older people, care issues, these sorts of things.
“If we really are going to make a difference to this illness, we need to get in early and we have to prevent it and we have to believe, before we fund any of that research or run any of those public appeals, that this is possible.
“Because a lot of people cynically say, ‘Oh it is part of ageing, there is nothing we can do about it, it is inevitable,’ and I think we have to change that perception.”
He compared the perception of dementia to that of cancer or HIV in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were fears that there was no cure.
Prof Ritchie said: “We have to look at the brain as being something that we can protect. We can build resilience, we can minimise risk.
Scotland is leading the way with dementia research into the “window of opportunity” where people in their thirties and forties have the the biological signs of dementia decades before the first symptoms of dementia appear.
Prof Ritchie is leading the global European Prevention of Alzheimer’s Dementia (EPAD) Consortium, a £5 million study to test new medicines on people who might be at a high risk of dementia.
One goal is to develop a form of screening, similar to cervical screening, to identify people in the early stages of dementia.
Dementia expert Professor June Andrews, of Stirling University, suggested banning sugar in hospitals and schools, in the same way that smoking has been banned from most public places.
Prof Andrews said: “There is no real simple answer to it but a sugar tax is an interesting and challenging idea.
“Research shows that diet makes a difference to dementia. All of the things we did for good heart health can also make an impact on dementia.”
Singling out sugar as the sole problem in poor diets is not the solution, argued Dr Alison Boyd, director for Sugar Nutrition UK, which is funded by the sugar industry.