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Dementia: The Memory Thief

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerMarch 6, 2017

The dementia epidemic is looming. With no cure or effective treatment method on the horizon, researchers are looking back at what we have learned over the last 100 years since the first disease diagnosis, and looking ahead into preventing dementia — the memory thief — for future generations.

Learn more about what we know about the disease, why that knowledge has not lead to a cure, and why researchers are choosing to focus on prevention.

100 Years Closer to a Cure for Dementia

Over 100 years ago, the first case of dementia was diagnosed.

We have learned so much about the disease — and the proteins and toxic plaques that cause it — since that time, including that:

  1. Better education and living standards have been shown to reduce its risk.
  2. Numerous studies have linked dietary and lifestyle choices to the disease.
  3. We have also learned about the biological components of the disease, about the build up of two proteins that actually cause the brain to shrink.
  4. We have put hundreds of drugs into clinical trials with failed results.

Professor Michel Geordert from the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, admits that there is a gap between what we understand of dementia and our ability to effectively treat or cure the disease. He says:

“We know much about the causes of inherited forms of Alzheimer’s disease [or dementia], but this knowledge has so far not led to any therapies. It’s clear now that abnormal protein aggregation is central to the disease, but we don’t know the mechanisms by which this aggregation leads to neurodegeneration.”

Professor Carol Brayne from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, speaks of the complexities of the disease, saying, “Dementia isn’t one disease: it’s a constellation of changes in an individual’s brain, with many underlying causes. Most people, by the time they’re in their eighties or nineties, have some of these changes in their brains, regardless of whether or not they ever develop dementia.”

Despite all of our advances, the dementia epidemic is still coming. We still do not have a cure, and as the senior population increases, dementia threatens to overwhelm health services and place a unbearable burden on society.

The Global Focus on Dementia Prevention

Many researchers agree that because our efforts for a cure have fallen short, there should be a focus on preventing the disease in the first place.

“I don’t think we should talk of a cure,” says Goedert. “At best, we will be able to halt the disease. Prevention will be much more important.”

Dr. Brayne agrees, advocating for a radical approach to brain health, emphasizing reducing the risk of dementia and focusing on better overall health through lifestyle and social changes.

Professor David Rubinsztein from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, is optimistic about being able to delay or prevent the disease, saying that even if we can delay the onset of dementia by three to five years, it would reduce the number of people living with the disease drastically.

He says, “We’re not asking to stop the disease, just to delay it. It’s really not such a [big thing to] ask.”

What do you think the most important development has been over the last 100 years of diagnosing dementia? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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