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UEA part of £2 million programme for dementia research

Researchers at the University of East Anglia have been awarded more than £760,000 as part of a major programme exploring ways to reduce the risk of dementia.

Alzheimer’s Research UK, Europe’s leading dementia research charity, will invest over £2 million in four innovative new projects, the UK’s largest charitable investment in dementia risk reduction research.

Researchers at UEA’s Norwich Medical School will investigate ways to boost the adoption of a Mediterranean style diet and increased physical activity – two lifestyle factors linked to a lower dementia risk. The team will also analyse medical data from over 9,000 adults to explore the relationships between cardiovascular health, diet, and brain health.

Prof Anne Marie Minihane is leading the project, which is a collaboration between highly complementary research teams at UEA, Newcastle University, and the Universities of Birmingham and Aberdeen.

There are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and this number is set to soar to over a million by 2025. While there are some drugs to help treat the symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia, there are no treatments that can stop or slow the spread of these diseases through the brain.

A recent report by the Lancet Commission estimated that around 35% of dementia cases could be prevented by eliminating nine risk factors linked to the condition. The review highlighted the broad potential of risk reduction across the population as a whole, but there are very few well-researched prevention programmes that offer concrete strategies to help individuals limit their risk of developing dementia.

Commenting on the UEA study, Prof Minihane said: “We will investigate for the first time the cognitive benefits of a Mediterranean style dietary pattern (MDP), with or without increased physical activity (PA), in UK adults. Our research programme will use data from over 9000 participants in two existing study groups, based in Norfolk and Aberdeen, who have been regularly assessed for over 50 years.

“We will also conduct a six-month intervention using MRI scans to look at the effects of a MDP and PA on brain function and volume, and cardiovascular risk, in those who self-report as experiencing some memory difficulties.

“We are grateful to Alzheimer’s Research UK for this opportunity to identify effective strategies to improve brain function and mitigate the predicted doubling of dementia cases in the UK by 2050.”

The new projects, including two pilot interventions, are the first to be supported through the Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Prevention and Risk Reduction Fund. The four major studies are building on the latest research findings to identify the prevention measures that could have the greatest impact on different groups of people, and exploring ways to deliver strategies that are as easy for people to follow as possible. The projects include:

  • A £246,000 study at the University of Manchester and Goldsmiths, University of London, to develop a technique for calculating an individual’s risk of dementia based on their medical records. Identifying people at high risk of developing conditions like stroke and heart disease has become a feature of modern GP care and a similar approach for dementia would allow preventative actions to target people earlier.
  • Nearly £800,000 for researchers to investigate whether internet counselling and other web-based support could help people make lifestyle changes to reduce their dementia risk. The University of Cambridge study will involve people at the highest immediate risk of dementia – those aged over 75.

A fourth project will focus on the emerging link between dementia risk and hearing loss. There has been comparatively little research into this link compared to factors like exercise and diet, but the Lancet commission report published in July found that, as hearing loss is so wide spread, it may have more of an impact on the overall number of dementia cases than any of the other factors they identified. 

A report by the charity has previously shown that an intervention that could delay the onset of dementia by five years from 2020 could cut the number of people affected by dementia and the number of informal carers by over a third by 2030, and save the UK economy £14 billion.

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Prevention is generally better than cure, and in the case of a disease like Alzheimer’s, for which there is currently no cure, this is especially true. While scientists continue to make progress towards more effective dementia treatments, it is crucial that we also explore ways people can reduce their risk of developing it in the first place.

“We are delighted to be able to invest over £2 million into these four innovative projects, which are taking up some of the biggest challenges in risk reduction research. By helping to identify and target the people most at risk of dementia, exploring the potential of tackling emerging risk factors like hearing loss, and finding the most effective ways to deliver risk reduction programmes, these studies hold real potential for empowering people to live longer free from the heartbreak of dementia.

“As we are living for longer, the numbers of people with dementia is set to keep rising. Without new ways to help, one in three children born today will die with dementia. Risk reduction research is a key part of our work towards transforming these prospects, and this major new investment is only possible thanks to the generous donations of our supporters.”

Study Medicine at UEA

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