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‘Finding out what prevents dementia has never been more important than now’

Queen’s researcher urges older people experiencing loss in appetite and decline in memory to participate in study

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Rachel Reid-McCann

Rachel Reid-McCann

Scientists believe diet has an influence on the disease, with loss of appetite an indicator

Scientists believe diet has an influence on the disease, with loss of appetite an indicator

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Rachel Reid-McCann

More than 22,000 people are estimated to be living with dementia in Northern Ireland and this is projected to double here by 2040, according to official statistics.

A major academic study at Queen’s University, however, aims to change that — but it can only be done with the help of more than 100 volunteers.

The focus of the research project, coordinated by Dr Claire McEvoy at the Centre for Public Health at the uni, is a high protein Mediterranean diet, specifically tailored for older people.

Dubbed ProMed-X, which is an amalgamation of protein, Mediterranean and ‘x’, representing exercise, the study aims to look at whether this diet in particular can improve memory.

Dementia is a devastating illness and it is characterised by the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. According to the NHS website, some people with dementia cannot control their emotions, and their personalities may change.

The condition also ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of living.

And while memory problems can be expected as people get older, dementia is not a normal part of ageing. Many people live into their 90s and beyond without any signs of the illness.

Researcher Rachel Reid-McCann told Sunday Life there’s a real lack of scientific understanding in what causes dementia. While research has found that some changes in the brain are linked to certain forms of dementia, in most cases, the underlying causes are unknown.

Rare genetic mutations may cause dementia in a relatively small number of people.

This study aims to shed more light on whether diet changes can reduce or prevent dementia.

Rachel says: “We’re looking for people over the age of 60 who have noticed a decline in their appetite or a reduced intake.

“We know that older people lose their appetite as they get older — it’s quite common for older adults to lose their appetite and maybe not eat as much as they used to and this can lead to unintentional weight loss,” she said.

“And it’s that unintentional weight loss that has been shown to increase the risk of dementia, perhaps 10 years afterwards.”

Those who apply and are chosen to be part of this study will make three visits to the Queen’s Centre of Public Health — based in the Royal Victoria Hospital — and at visit, will have blood samples taken, as well as undergoing other physical tests such as height, weight, and body compositions.

Crucially, there will also be cognitive tests to glean whether or not a participant’s memory or thinking functions have improved over the course of the three visits.

Queen’s was selected to lead the research, beating various research centres across Europe and it is funded by the UK Research Councils.

Rachel reveals that participants can expect to be involved in ProMed-X for six months, adding that it started in January and so far 15 people have taken part.

Outlining why people apply to take part, Rachel says: “Everybody (in the study) has experienced that change in their food intake and have noticed a slight decline in their memory. Some people want to address that; they’ve noticed that their memory isn’t what it used to be and want to have the potential to improve their memory.

“On the other hand, some people just want to contribute to something for the greater good. Some people, it’ll be personal to them, and others just want to be part of something.”

The researcher stresses that in the decades to come, dementia will become more and more common here.

“I’m very lucky in that it’s not something that I’ve dealt with in my own family. Healthy ageing is undoubtedly one of the most important areas due to the changing demographics,” adds Rachel.

“It’s more important now than it ever has been before. We know in Northern Ireland that our population is ageing; we have a greater proportion of older adults and the number of dementia cases is expected to increase and that’s devastating for patients and their families. But it’s also going to be challenging for our health service. We need to figure out how we can prevent or delay dementia cases in the future. That’s why these type of studies that look at diet and exercise are really very important.”

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer must be aged 60 or over, must have noticed problems in their memory in the last year, and noticed a loss in appetite or are now eating less.

The project can be contacted via email: promedex@qub.ac.uk, phone: 07594966740 or via facebook.com/promedcog


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