Dr Jamie Wilson is a passionate advocate of prevention in the world of brain health.
According to Alzheimers Society, one in six people over the age of 80 will experience cognitive impairment, clinically defined as dementia.
While early symptoms of the illness remain unclear, dementia can impact language and clarity of thought, interfere with laying down new memories and cause forgetfulness. It is a progressive condition with no known cure.
We are over medicating dementia sufferers, robbing them of vital human interaction and the opportunity to delay the progress of their condition. Despite tens of billions of pounds in funding and more than 200 clinical studies for a “wonder drug”, we are still at least a decade away from having effective pharmaceutical weapons in our armoury.
We must look elsewhere for solutions, and they do exist – in fact, few people know there are ways to delay the early onset of dementia and memory loss more broadly. Through simple lifestyle interventions we can actually improve brain health – boosting our cognitive ability and strengthening our minds. In fact, a commission by the Lancet – one of the world’s leading medical journals – found that 40% of dementia was preventable.
For dementia sufferers and their families this is vital – not only can we delay the progress of dementia, we can limit the impact of its symptoms.
So armed with this knowledge, how do we take an active role in delaying and preventing the onset of dementia?
I believe we should be empowering our nation of care workers as brain health experts, giving them the necessary skills and tooling them up to deliver preventative measures, tackling the impact of the disease head on. Because despite dementia being a condition that many care workers face on a daily basis, many of them have no formal training to help identify, manage or help prevent cognitive decline.
A recent study by dementia experts at Exeter University, King’s College London and Oxford Health Trust found that training staff to deal with dementia could have a significant impact on patients – saving up to 20,000 lives per year. During the nine-month trial scientists found that an increase in social interaction and reduced medication led to a significant reduction in mortality, improved quality of life, and cut depression, apathy, agitation and aggression.
There are evidence-based approaches which we believe our carers could adopt which not only improve the day-to-day experience of patients but to improve their condition over time.
We believe at the very least, all care workers should be trained using the NICE guidelines on caring for a person with dementia, published earlier this year. From understanding the basics of the illness and its symptoms, to training care workers to understand and respond to changes in behaviour and to plan helpful activities. This will drive awareness and give care workers the confidence to put plans in place which they know are helping their patient.
My company, HomeTouch, is developing new tools and learning materials to enable carers to help patients maintain brain health. We are the first and only home care platform to focus on prevention in this way but we believe this should available for all carers treating patients with dementia and would be a means to help reduce the burden on the healthcare system.
Here are just some examples:
Social interaction: many care workers would prefer to spend more time with their patients, and if this is possible it is one of the most powerful ways in which they can help them maintain brain health. Playing simple brain games and puzzles, engaging patients in discussions and encouraging them to watch television and listen to the radio can have a huge impact cognitive function.
Food: Dementia sufferers can experience many food-related problems, from forgetting to eat, struggling to eat with cutlery or overindulging at mealtimes. Through simple gestures, such as establishing a regular routine with food, eating meals at the same time each day and monitoring what patients are eating care workers can make a real difference to brain health. For example, by encouraging patients to introduce items such as fruit, vegetables and important Omega-3s in oily fish in their diets, including plenty of berries and green leafy vegetables and cutting down on meat.
Movement: studies have shown that aerobic exercise can have positive effects on brain function with one study showing that just 20 minutes of movement can facilitate information processing and memory function. For those suffering with dementia, gentle dance routines, yoga movements or stretching can be transformative. Movement boosts the blood flow to the brain, delivering vital oxygen and growth hormone stimulation which help provide a positive environment for the growth of brain cells.
We understand that the burden on care workers shoulders is already great but we hope by empowering them with information and tools, such as these simple interventions, that we can not only improve the quality of care but actively delay the progress of dementia.