What Alzheimer’s disease and heart health, diabetes have in common

It's estimated that dementia costs Canadian taxpayers $33 billion a year in both direct health-care costs and the lost income of family members who are forced to act as caregivers. Sebastien Bozon/Getty Images

TORONTO – A global health report warned last year that the world is “woefully unprepared” for a rising dementia epidemic. The numbers were staggering: by 2050, about 135 million people worldwide would be living with dementia.

This year in its sixth annual report, Alzheimer’s Disease International pushed aside projections and estimates and zeroed in on how everyday people can keep dementia away. While it’s a disease in the brain, it shares similar risk factors as heart disease and other chronic conditions.

“From a public health perspective, it is important to note that most risk factors for dementia overlap with those for other major non-communicable diseases,” Marc Wortmann, ADI’s executive director, said.

“The takeaway here is that there are things you can do to increase your brain health and those are the same things that are good for your heart,” Wortmann told Global News from London, England.

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Diabetes can increase the risk of dementia by 50 per cent. Obesity and lack of physical exercise are also important risk factors for diabetes and high blood pressure. In turn, they’re also risk factors for dementia.

Take up regular exercise, follow a healthy diet and quit smoking, the report suggests.

READ MORE: ‘Woefully unprepared’ for world dementia epidemic, report warns

Smoking is “strongly linked” to dementia risk. The report points to research that shows smokers are at a higher risk – ex-smokers have the same odds as those who have never smoked at all.

Keep your brain challenged, too. People who have had better educational opportunities have a lower risk of dementia later on in life. It’s especially important in mid-life when changes in the brain appear.

Because these diseases overlap, ADI is collaborating with international cancer, heart disease and diabetes organizations, Wortmann said.

ADI represents an international federation of Alzheimer’s associations with 79 member countries. It’s the global voice on dementia, with direct ties to the World Health Organization and the United Nations.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada is a member of ADI – Wortmann says that Canada was the first to put together a national organization in 1977.

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WATCH ABOVE: Like thousands of Canadians, Dawna Friesen’s parents are struggling with dementia. In sharing her story, Friesen says we shouldn’t sit silently and watch loved ones be exiled to an unreachable world.

Last week, Ottawa hosted the Canada-France Global Dementia Legacy Event – the second in a series of four gatherings stemming from the world’s first dementia summit held last year in London, England.

READ MORE: As dementia sets in, artists still recall drawing from memory

It was a big step in acting on the looming dementia crisis, Wortmann said. While prevention wasn’t a key topic at last week’s meeting, he said that health officials focused on how researchers and the industry can come out of their silos to work together.

Canada’s Alzheimer Society has been pushing for a national dementia plan, and thirteen fellow countries already have one.

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A national strategy would roll in key objectives: research, programs that look after caregivers, understanding diagnosis and early treatment, as examples.

The “positive news,” Wortmann told Global News, is that Nova Scotia and Alberta are already working on provincial plans.

READ MORE: Ontario Alzheimer Society launches its first multicultural awareness campaign

ADI’s report warned that while North America and Europe are already adopting lifestyle changes to prevent Alzheimer’s, cases of dementia in developing nations are skyrocketing.

In some cases, some cultures may not acknowledge dementia as a legitimate disease. Last year, Ontario’s Alzheimer Society launched its first multicultural awareness campaign.

“It’s not only in Canada. Large communities of people see [symptoms of dementia] as a normal part of aging and it’s taboo to talk about it,” Wortmann said.

“This is a normal disease – it’s a biological process but it’s not obvious in the arms or legs, it’s in the brain,” Wortmann said.

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About 747,000 Canadians already have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia – that’s expected to double to 1.4 million in less than 20 years.

READ MORE: Brain exercise trumps medication in maintaining seniors’ cognitive health: study

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. It affects memory, thinking and behaviour.

It’s also one of the most costly illnesses that global health care officials have had to deal with. A U.S. report suggests it tops cancer and heart disease, costing families and society $157 billion to $215 billion a year.

READ MORE: Alzheimer’s most costly malady in US topping cancer, heart disease: study

The biggest cost isn’t drugs or medical treatment, it’s the care that mentally impaired people need through daily life.

Read Alzheimer’s Disease International’s full report here. It was released Wednesday.

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