Professor Kevin Fenton

Professor Kevin Fenton, Director for Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England, considers midlife approaches to reduce the risk of developing dementia through healthy living, and the importance of moving away from thinking of dementia as simply an inevitable part of ageing. 

Dementia has been described as a ticking timebomb that could affect more than a million people in the UK by 2025.

An estimated 21 million people in England have a close friend or family member living with dementia. So directly or indirectly, it will soon affect every one of us.

Perhaps that’s why dementia is now considered the most feared health condition for people over the age of 55 more than any other major disease, including cancer.

These alarming figures may paint a bleak picture, but we know that people are more likely to live well in their older years if they live healthily in earlier life, particularly during midlife.

What most of us recognise as actions to improve heart health, such as not smoking and being physically active, can also contribute to maintaining a healthy brain.

Worryingly, a recent survey by Alzheimer’s Research UK found that only a quarter of British adults said they thought it was possible for people to reduce their risk of developing dementia, compared to 83% for diabetes and 82% for heart disease.

But when told that a healthy lifestyle may reduce the risk of dementia, two in five people said they would be more likely to adopt a healthy lifestyle specifically to lower their risk of the condition.

Modifying cardiovascular risk factors have contributed to a large decline in deaths from heart disease and stroke over the past 50 years.

The same could be the case for dementia. Potentially up to a third of dementia cases may be attributable to potentially modifiable lifestyle risk factors.

The latest edition of Public Health England’s Health Matters, a resource which brings together evidence of effective – and cost-effective – interventions to tackle major public health problems, focuses on midlife approaches to reduce dementia risk.

We must change our mindset and move away from thinking that dementia is simply an inevitable part of ageing.

This resource for health professionals and local authorities makes the case for action in midlife to promote healthy lifestyles that can reduce the risk of dementia. We know that people are more likely to live well in their older years if they live healthily in earlier life, particularly during midlife.

This edition of Health Matters sign posts to resources developed for PHE’s new One You campaign which is the first campaign to focus on the health of adults. One You aims to encourage adults, particular those in middle age, to take control of their health to enjoy significant benefits now, and in later life.

There is also a big role to play in promoting dementia risk reduction for Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and local authorities and this is outlined in Health Matters.

Using PHE’s dementia profile tool, for example, can help CCGs and local authorities identify local risk factors for dementia such as smoking prevalence, physical inactivity, excess weight and alcohol-related hospital admissions. This will help to prioritise efforts to reduce such risk factors. 

A great opportunity to promote healthy living is during The NHS Health Check, which is for adults in England aged 40 to 74. The NHS Health Check presents an opportunity to take regular measurements of cholesterol levels, blood glucose, and blood pressure, issues that could lead to or enhance the risk of dementia. In particular the risks are heightened for people with diabetes or pre diabetes, so ensuring they take advantage of these free health checks is significant.

Read the dementia edition of Health Matters for more advice on ways to lower the risk of dementia, as well as ways to keep your brain active and challenged throughout life to help protect against dementia. You can also visit the Health Matters collection page to view previous editions and to sign up to the e-bulletin.