We used to call it senility. For thousands of years, the older people who survived could go doolally while life went on, around them. In the past 25 years, dementia has turned into a major health problem.
At present, dementia effects 850,000 people in the UK; 40,000 of whom are under 65. Meanwhile, in the US, one-third of the US population over 85 already has the disease. It's marked by different manifestations and trajectories, no defined starting point and likely to incubate for 20-30 years. No wonder we're afraid.
Since our brains start shrinking at age 25, there are decades of fear ahead, even though cognitive decline is rarely seen in the under 60s. Still, some measure of intelligence theft, over time, is inevitable. And while it's true that faster declines have been linked to the usual culprits, the likelihood you'll succumb to dementia still can't be predicted with any accuracy -- even for all the smoking, obese, diabetics with high blood pressure out there. Meanwhile, no one is immune, so earning those stripes during midlife is not advisable, particularly if being well-derly instead of ill-derly is preferred.
Taking personal responsibility for controllable risk factors carries far greater importance the longer we get. That's even true for things we used to chalk up to genetic destiny, because we know that is no longer cast in stone.
Which makes it even stranger that so many don't pursue or actively consider wellness as an option. The British Heart Foundation recently reported that one in seven Brits have done zero exercise in the past decade, citing pure laziness as the most common reason. Thankfully, public health messages are now trumpeting that if it's good for your heart, it's also good for your head. Consequently, improvements to basic healthcare for any disorder that can increase risks of dementia is fundamental to getting to grips with this disease.
That said, getting an Alzheimers diagnosis is not always straightforward and the recent scandal regarding numbers of new cases has increased fears too. Luckily, there appears to be a link between your ability to smell peanut butter with your left nostril, from a distance, and confirmation of a positive diagnosis. There is even a new application for a patent for a device that can screen, detect, diagnose and/or monitor relative olfactory deterioration resulting from Alzheimer's disease. That's good news.
Further to optimism, attention is rightly being paid to a breakthrough drug called C31. In a world crying out for disruption, C31 is highly disruptive. It overturns the original direction of drug treatments for dementia for good reason. There have been more than 244 drugs tested for Alzheimers since 2000, only five of them have been approved and not one of them is a silver bullet. C31 was developed by Dr Frank Longo at Stanford University. Instead of trying to eliminate the amyloid plaques that are the calling card for Alzheimer's, C31's job is to protect brain cells and keep them healthy, before any neurological disturbance ever takes place. There is positive anticipation that this new approach can cut Alzheimers off at the pass.
And now, just two days ago, three British neuroscientists were awarded The Brain Prize, for their work on helping us understand how we form memories. Apparently, we will soon be able to erase memories and theoretically be able to implant false ones. For anyone fearing an Alzheimer's diagnosis, erasing memories sounds like the last thing you'd want researchers to be working on. However, upon closer scrutiny, being able to strengthen the brains incredible plasticity really could be the key to halting the disease in its earliest stages.
And that's the ticket.