Dementia, and the power of community
Making simple life-changes is reducing dementia – and friendship is playing a key role, writes Louise Morse of Pilgrim Friends' Society
Health Minister Sajid Javid promised delegates at the latest Alzheimer's conference a new government strategy plan for dementia. He said it will have a major focus on prevention and research, noting that as much as 40 per cent of dementia is potentially preventable.
It's a wise move, as preventative measures are already resulting in a decline in new cases of dementia over the past 25 years. A recent study by the Alzheimer's Cohort Consortium shows that Alzheimer's disease has fallen by 16 per cent and other dementias by 13 per cent in Europe, the UK, America and Canada. If it continues, by 2040 15 million fewer people will have developed dementia.
This is happening without pharmaceutical intervention. Five clinical trials of monoclonal antibodies to clear protein deposits on the brain have failed. A monoclonal antibody is a type of protein that is made in the laboratory and can bind to certain targets in the body, such as antigens on the surface of cancer cells, or protein deposits in the brain. The most recent, Aduhelm, removed the plaques but failed to improve cognition. It also had significant side effects and has now been shelved. Many scientists believe that influential researchers have long believed so dogmatically in one theory of Alzheimer’s that they have systematically thwarted alternative approaches.*
But the good news is that making simple life-changes is bringing significant results. Even people at the highest genetic risk living a healthier lifestyle are likely to have a lower risk of dementia. A striking example is the 'Caerphilly Study,' a 35 year study of middle-aged men in a Welsh valley where those who stuck to healthy lifestyles saw a 60 per cent reduction in dementia.
The Caerphilly study also showed the power of friendship. The regular meet ups for tests brought a sense of community which some likened to attending school reunions. The valley has always had a strong community ethos, a known antidote for loneliness.
Feelings of loneliness double the risk of developing dementia. Loneliness is said to be as bad for the brain as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's not surprising that in some countries solitary isolation is still used as torture.
Research suggests that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self esteem, sleep problems and increased stress. In a 30 year study of over 4 million people in New Zealand, over 6 per cent of those with mental health conditions developed dementia during the observation period, compared with 1.8 per cent of those those without the conditions. Loneliness not only predicates dementia but exacerbates its progress.
People need people
Loneliness is the opposite of God's plan for us: He designed us to live and develop in relationship with one another. Our brains are firing more neurons when we interact with each other than at any other time. The Scripture 1 Thessalonians 5:11 tells us to build one another up, and Hebrews 10:15 tells us to encourage each other to love each other and to meet together for worship. People who regularly attend church have lower stress levels and tend to live longer than others, several studies have found. One professor found the results are so impressive that although he was an atheist he was considering joining a church.
Church members work hard to mitigate loneliness in their communities. When members couldn't visit during the Covid lockdown, the effect on older people was devastating. Last September the Office for National Statistics published data revealing a 65 per cent increase in extra dementias and Alzheimer's death at home during the pandemic.
One of the dementia statistics is a 90-year old former pastor. He had cardiovascular problems and mild cognitive impairment before the pandemic. Isolated from church and visitors, he was diagnosed with dementia a few months before lockdown ended.
His life had been books and people. He had been a spiritual father to hundreds in his time and during lockdown he badly missed the stimulus of visits and conversations. Now, in his Friday Day Centre, a carer encourages him to talk about the countries he has visited looking at photographs and maps that his wife has provided. He comes to life and talks openly, and I'm sure also gently witnesses of Christ. His brain is stimulated and he enjoys the sessions. Times like these can slow the progression of dementia.
Social contact and communal activities are better than antipsychotic drugs for treating agitation and aggression, says a team led by Dr Schneider at University of California Los Angelos. Feedback to our group cognitive and spiritual stimulation programs called 'Brain and Soul Boosting' (BSP) confirms they contribute to well-being, improved cognition, and faith. A hospital chaplain told us that the psychiatrist, intrigued with the improved mood of patients with dementia, came into the Day Room to see 'what was going on'. BSB is being used in churches and faith groups.
Bringing friendship to people with dementia is rewarding. I will be looking more at this as part of a special online event for Pilgrims' Friend Society's Prayer Week (13-19 June) including some of the challenges involved on 15 June, at 7:30. For details of how to sign up for this (and two other events we are running, visit: pilgrimsfriend.org.uk/prayerweek2022
Louise Morse is a speaker and author of several books on issues of old age, including dementia. She is also external relations manager with the Pilgrims’ Friend Society, a Christian charity founded in 1807 to help support needy elderly Christians.
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