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4 reasons to be hopeful during Dementia Awareness Week

Don't believe the headlines, we've actually many reasons to be positive about the fightback against dementia, says Louise Morse. 

Ten years ago, dementia came in like a tsunami, overwhelming everyone and everything in its path. But not any more – the numbers are falling, as much as 29% in some sectors. 

Better understanding of how our brains work and ways of prevention and rehabilitation are holding out hope, and interestingly, they resonate with the age-old wisdom of Scripture.

In fact, secular research is actually proving biblical precepts to be true! We would admit that we live in a fallen world where harmful emotions abound, yet can be slow to see the link between these and our physical health. It’s taking secular researchers to point it out. Research often emphasises the significance of the commandment that Jesus highlighted as so important: to "love your neighbour as yourself." The Bible also instructs us to continually "renew the spirit of our mind" (Ephesians 4:23). Other scriptures tell us not to fear, not to be anxious, and to only let uplifting thoughts dwell in our minds (Philippians 4:8). According to the latest research, learning to be content can help prevent dementia. 

Perhaps more than any other illness, dementia reminds us that we are more than the sum of our parts – that we are eternal spirits in 'earthly' tents, as the apostle Paul puts it. This is seen in something called 'rementing' - when the person with dementia, even quite deep dementia, responds to worship, or an old hymn, or a scripture reading. It’s the "deep calling to deep" that Psalm 42 refers to. There’s no medical explanation for how the person suddenly reappears, with the faculties they'd apparently lost, talking normally. But it shows that we are spirit beings in earthly bodies.  

Often the conversation around Dementia is very negative. But there are many reasons to be hopeful:

1. Dementia rates are falling, thanks to better lifestyles. There's been a 22% drop in the UK over two decades. The NHS and other social bodies still quote figures based on projections from the 1980s to support their own agendas, according to experts.

But the truth is, people born after the year 2000 are far less likely to get dementia than those born in 20th century. This is probably due to better living conditions and could also include the effect of harsher lives on earlier generations; they endured two world wars and much economic hardship.

2. We're getting better at rehabilitation

There are now a large number of brain training programmes, and Pilgrims Friend Society has developed a programme for cognitive and spiritual stimulation, called 'Brain and Soul Boosting for Seniors'.

Dr Jennifer Bute, a Christian GP who retired after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, studied the work of Japanese Professor Kawashima, who had proved that the three 'R's of regular reading aloud, mental arithmetic and writing activates brain activity in older people and restores communication and independence in those with dementia if done on a regular basis.

The evidence impressed her so much that she set up a group in the dementia village in Wiltshire where she lives, and now has written evidence of increased MMSE (Mini Mental State Examination) scores and improved behaviours. She trains others to run similar groups and has also produced booklets that are usable at all stages. As news of her work spread people began to travel from all over the world to learn from her work.

3. Prevention is possible

The genes you inherit are not as important as what switches them on or off. Epigenetics is a system that turns our genes on and off. The process works by chemical tags, known as epigenetic marks, attaching to DNA and telling a cell to either use or ignore a particular gene. Research shows that our epigenetics are affected by our environment, behaviour and our emotions. Studies of identical twins show that while one may develop dementia, the other doesn’t.

Effective prevention was evidenced in a 35-year study involving 90 percent of the male population in a Welsh valley, which saw a 64% drop in dementia simply due to sticking to healthy lifestyles. Many scientists suggest that there should be more investment in education and prevention programmes like this, beyond drug discovery.

Ways of preventing dementia, as well as having a healthy diet are said to be:

  • A sense of belonging. Have friends and keep good social connections. 
  • Having faith and going to church. One professor (an atheist) said he was so impressed with the results of studies he was thinking of going himself.
  • Exercise – need not be heavy duty – walking for 30 minutes, five times a week was found to be ideal.
  • Sleeping – having three 90-minute sleep cycles. During sleep, brain hemispheres shrink and an enzyme rises that clears away cellular waste
  • Learning and keeping the brain active - education is a strong factor
  • Being content! Depression slows blood flow to the brain. Feelings of loneliness increase risk by 47%. Chronic stress in middle age increases risk in later years.

4. Three new centres of research are being set up with £250m investment, the main hub being in UCL London, with at least three other research centres with eight universities competing to house them. After 20 years of failure to produce an effective treatment, research has been switched from the 'amyloid hypothesis' (the protein deposits in the brain, known as the Alzheimer’s pathology) to more promising studies, such as the brain’s immune system and the effect of inflammation.    

Our brains are constantly changing and more is understood about how our neuronal health is affected by our emotions. The trailblazer in dementia understanding and care, Prof Tom Kitwood (Dementia Reconsidered) said that every social interaction was a 'neuronal event.' Kitwood suggested the progression of dementia was influenced by our living in a 'malign social pathology':  the Bible calls it a 'fallen creation'. Kitwood argued that the process of dementia resulted from the interplay between neurological and psychological factors.

Nobel Prize Winner Eric Kandel said that "every night when you go to bed, that day you have structured your brain." And neuroscientist, David Eagleman said, "‘In the same way that your environment and behaviour shape your brain when you’re younger, they are just as important in your later years." 

A large, longitudinal study by Public Health England involving 70,000 people aged 55+ for over 10 years, found that of those that died with dementia (around 10,000) a majority showed higher levels of 'neuroticism' that is, those more likely than average to be moody and to experience such feelings as anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness.

Louise Morse is media and communications manager with the Pilgrims’ Friend Society, a 210 year old charity supporting older people and helping churches and other Christian organisations do the same. She is author of books on dementia (Lion Hudson), a speaker and writer, and cognitive behavioural therapist. 

Dementia Awareness Week runs from 14-20th May

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Thoughts on the latest trends, topics, news and culture from a Christian perspective.

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