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Understanding the heart-brain link in dementia

What is the connection between the heart and the brain? Sana Suri considers the importance of dementia research, care and support among an ageing population.

We live in an ageing society. Soon the number of people over the age of 60 will far exceed those under 14. A lot of the biomedical research to date has focused on extending our lifespans and increasing the quantity of life, without appreciating how we can maintain the quality of life. One of the biggest challenges of our time will be to understand resilience in old age – ie why do some people lead relatively long and healthy lives while others become vulnerable to cognitive decline

As people live longer, we will see a greater prevalence of age-related diseases, the most common being dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for many different brain diseases that affect our ability to think, learn, remember and communicate. These problems get progressively worse with time, and unfortunately, there is currently no cure. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which first affects our memory.

The good news is that Alzheimer’s is not an inevitable consequence of ageing, so many people can go on to live long and healthy lives without ever developing it. While some amount of our risk for Alzheimer’s is genetic, there are also lifestyle changes that we can make to reduce our chances of developing dementia as we get older.

A lot of the biomedical research to date has focused on extending our lifespans and increasing the quantity of life, without appreciating how we can maintain the quality of life.

The latest research supports the idea that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Heart diseases and dementia share many risk factors – eg high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and smoking. About a third of dementia cases can in theory be prevented by modifying these lifestyle factors, and we’re gradually seeing that regular exercise, sleep, social engagement, intellectual stimulation and a healthy diet help to maintain our brain health as we grow older.

We have also seen a nation-wide policy effort to fight dementia, which was kick-started by the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia in 2012, and has now entered its second phase in 2020. These policies aim to enhance dementia research, care and support in the UK and ensure that we are not only improving our lifespan, but also our health span as we grow older. However, there is still a fair way to go. We need to ensure that these efforts remain at the top of the health policy agenda and that we do not lose our momentum and progress to date.

Dr Sana Suri is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford. She was recently awarded an Alzheimer’s Society Research Fellowship to investigate the heart-brain link in ageing. Her scientific outreach has been recognised by the Association of British Science Writers, the Alzheimer’s Society, and in UK Parliament.

The issues raised in this blog will be part of the discussion with Sana at our online Melting Pot Lunch on 15 May.

Sana Suri14 May 2020


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