Highlights from a brilliant night at the Playfair Library focusing on lifestyle and dementia risk

On the 29th of November 2017, The Centre for Dementia Prevention hosted its annual winter conference ‘‘Preventing Dementia: Advice and Advances’’ at Edinburgh’s Playfair Library. We are delighted that the conference was sold-out and would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who came out on a cold November night to listen to a fantastic collection of speakers – including the Chief Executives of both Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Scotland – and to join us in discussing how we can all manage our risk of dementia. Our speakers received some great questions from the audience and many who attended expressed an interest in engaging with our research. Below, we summarise some of the topics of interest from the panel discussions and presentations. Please note that a video of the event including the panel discussions will be uploaded soon.

Does air pollution cause dementia?  A relatively new body of research suggests there is a link between air pollution and brain health, and possibly dementia. No matter what you measure, it is becoming clear that poor air quality is bad for your brain.  There are a lot of reasons which could explain the link we see between pollution and brain health. For example, people who live in polluted areas often have a less healthy diet and are more likely to smoke, factors which affect the brain.  But even when different reasons for poor brain health – such as diet and smoking habits – are taken out of the equation, we still see an association between pollution and brain health. Researchers currently don’t know how pollution damages the brain, or if it causes dementia. Much more research is needed before we can draw any conclusions. If you would like to read more on this topic, Science published an article on The Polluted Brain.

What is the link between vitamin D and dementia? There is some evidence vitamin D may be ‘‘neuroprotective’’, or protecting the brain from disease and aging. Whether vitamin D supplements can be used as a treatment to reduce someone’s risk of developing dementia is a more challenging question to answer. We do not know how vitamin D deficiency relates to brain health, or whether it in fact causes dementia. This is difficult to measure since vitamin D levels vary by season and over someone’s lifetime. If researchers do find that vitamin D protects against dementia, we would also have to know at what point in someone’s life vitamin D has its protective effect in order to use it as a treatment. We have previously written about geographical differences in dementia risk, which may be explained by differential levels of sun exposure – and therefore vitamin D – in different parts of the world.

Can we personalise nutrition to reduce dementia risk? It is generally known that a healthy lifestyle promotes good health. It is really difficult to measure if a certain diet can reduce someone’s risk of developing dementia. Disease causing dementia develops over a number of years, so you would have to measure someone’s diet for a very long time to find out if it makes a difference to one’s dementia risk. Correctly recording one’s diet is also hugely challenging. You probably won’t remember exactly what you ate yesterday, or even today. High risk of heart disease, however, has been linked to ‘vascular dementia’, which develops when blood flow to the brain is not as efficient as it should be. A diet that promotes healthy blood flow (low-fat, low-salt, low-sugar etc.) is therefore thought to reduce risk of this type of dementia.  We have also written about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for brain health.

We are very thankful to everyone who came along and as a number of people got in touch with us to say they were unable to come along to the evening so we will be sure to post more around the topics we discussed at the event – including the development of drugs for dementia, the role of technology in early diagnosis and treatment, the future of dementia research, and what it means to participate in dementia drug trials. While the video from last night is being prepared to be uploaded, see our Twitter feed for a narrative of the evening!