Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Healthy living can help cut dementia but society has to change to make it happen

The news that a study by Cardiff University has found that a healthy lifestyle can reduce the likelihood of dementia by 60 per cent is a cause for hope amid a growing epidemic.
The research, which has involved following 2,235 people since 1979, found that regular exercise, eating fruit and veg, staying slim, light drinking and no smoking reduced the likelihood of getting dementia.
The researchers also found that if 50 per cent of men had taken up the five options there would have been 13 per cent less dementia generally.
I was fascinated by the research, given that my father and grandmother (Dad’s Mum) got dementia. Given the genetic trends, dementia developments are always of more than a passing interest to my brother and myself as well as our cousins and offspring. That said: Dad really did follow the five criteria set out for a healthy lifestyle. He exercised every day, always going for regular walks and before that swimming. He ate a balanced diet. He went on a stringent diet about 30 years before he died, reducing his weight by a couple of stone, then made sure he never really put on much weight. He drank moderately and gave up smoking at about the same time as he lost the weight. Prior to that he was really only a moderate pipe smoker.
So the latest research doesn’t really throw a lot of light on dementia amongst the Donovans. We are still very much in the genetic analysis, namely that it is handed from generation to generation somehow. The upside for us is that Mum had an almost photographic memory.
The latest research though useful, underlines the need for more research. There are 800,000 plus dementia sufferers in the UK, with the number set to increase over coming years. Critics have attacked the low level of funding for research into dementia compared to cancer. Cancer research receives four times the level of research funding that dementia does.
At the same time that the research was published, Prime Minister David Cameron was set to chair a G8 international conference on dementia or as it was more dramatically stated “the 21st century plague.”
This prioritisation of this disease internationally must be welcomed but it also raises questions.
If the Cardiff University research is accepted, namely that factors about the environment in which we live can be conducive or otherwise to getting conditions like dementia, then that raises many questions. Not least the whole manner of human evolution in the 21st century.
The lifestyle of the mass of people is becoming more and more sedentary. Economic progress is being driven increasingly by internet based technology.
Young and old alike spend growing amounts of time locked into laptops or mobiles, seemingly cut off from the natural world. It always amazes me when travelling through some fantastic rolling countryside on the train to observe people plugged into these various electronic devices, totally missing the panorama going on outside the window.
The sedentary existence is further promoted by the loss of playing fields and the like across the country. Computer games abound. Obesity is increasing to epidemic proportions, particularly among the young as a result of this major change in our way of living and working.
There is also the growing ignorance regarding food. The explosion of fast foods on the back of a culture that no longer creates the space for proper meals being eaten and shared.
The fast food epidemic has helped fuel the obesity epidemic. Many people today will not know that a healthy lifestyle requires fruit and vegetables as part of the diet. The public health message about the need for the five a day of fruit and veg has hit home with some but many remain ignorant.
Then there is the basic lifestyle of people today. The insecurity of work, leads to stress and less possibility of a work /life balance. What hope is there for someone working long hours for low pay in say a call centre environment? This lifestyle is not conducive to following the five elements set out for healthy living, if anything the opposite. A sedentary existence that does not allow time to exercise and due to stress pushes the individual toward drinking and smoking. When the person also has children to care for, the problems multiply even further.
As someone who endured the pain of watching my Dad descend into the depths of dementia, whereby he did not recognise any of the family, I welcome any advance in averting or treating the disease. However, if we are to take the medical research seriously, then there is a need to look to the sort of society being created.
Low wages, insecure work, sedentary type existences do not promote healthy living. Everyone needs to take responsibility for the way they live but there also needs to be wider look taken at how conducive life patterns are to that goal.
The ultimate conclusion could be that the type of society being created today makes conditions like dementia more not less likely to develop. If we are to all follow the five elements that ensure more healthy living then just maybe the whole way in which society is organised today needs revaluation. For it will only be by taking a truly holistic approach to how our society is organised that conditions like dementia can really be overcome.

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