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Hearing loss & dementia research benefits from funding boost

21 September 2017

Alzheimer’s Research UK will invest over £2 million in four innovative new projects exploring ways to reduce the risk of dementia, one of which is led by UCL researchers.

Lancet Commission on dementia

The announcement, which comes on World Alzheimer’s Day (21 September), is the UK’s largest charitable investment in dementia risk reduction research.

A recent Lancet Commission report, led by Professor Gill Livingston (UCL Psychiatry) and involving other UCL researchers and collaborating institutions, estimated that around 35% of dementia cases could be prevented by eliminating nine risk factors linked to the condition. The review highlighted the broad potential of risk reduction across the population as a whole, but there are very few well-researched prevention programmes that offer concrete strategies to help individuals limit their risk of developing dementia.

A project led by Dr Sergi Costafreda Gonzalez (UCL Psychiatry) will receive £608,000 to study the emerging link between dementia risk and hearing loss. There has been comparatively little research into this link compared to factors like exercise and diet, but the Lancet Commission report found that, as hearing loss is so widespread, it may have more of an impact on the overall number of dementia cases than any of the other factors they identified.

“In the UK, over two-thirds of people aged over 65 experience hearing loss, but most do not get hearing aid treatment. If they do, they very often stop using them, especially if they have memory problems. With mounting evidence of a strong link between hearing loss and dementia risk, this is potentially a huge missed opportunity for us to tackle the growing impact of dementia and make a real difference to people’s lives,” Dr Costafreda said.

“While there is a clear association between the two conditions, the only way to really know if treating hearing loss could lower dementia risk is by running tests in people. We have developed a programme to help boost hearing aid use and this new funding will allow us to test this approach in people at a high risk of developing dementia. We’re hopeful that this work will highlight an approach to help delay the onset of dementia in the long run, and we’re very grateful to Alzheimer’s Research UK for this support,” he said.

There are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and this number is set to soar to over a million by 2025. While there are some drugs to help treat the symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia, there are no treatments that can stop or slow the spread of these diseases through the brain.

The new projects are the first to be supported through the Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Prevention and Risk Reduction Fund. The three other studies are:

  • A study at the University of Manchester and Goldsmiths, University of London, to develop a technique for calculating an individual’s risk of dementia based on their medical records, to enable preventative actions that could target people earlier.
  • A University of Cambridge study investigating whether internet counselling and other web-based support could help people make lifestyle changes to reduce their dementia risk.
  • Researchers at the University of East Anglia exploring ways to boost the adoption of a Mediterranean style diet and increased physical activity – two lifestyle factors linked to a lower dementia risk, and analysing the relationships between cardiovascular health, diet, and brain health.

A report by the charity has previously shown that an intervention that could delay the onset of dementia by five years from 2020 could cut the number of people affected by dementia and the number of informal carers by over a third by 2030, and save the UK economy £14 billion.

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Prevention is generally better than cure, and in the case of a disease like Alzheimer’s, for which there is currently no cure, this is especially true. While scientists continue to make progress towards more effective dementia treatments, it is crucial that we also explore ways people can reduce their risk of developing it in the first place.

“We are delighted to be able to invest over £2 million into these four innovative projects, which are taking up some of the biggest challenges in risk reduction research. By helping to identify and target the people most at risk of dementia, exploring the potential of tackling emerging risk factors like hearing loss, and finding the most effective ways to deliver risk reduction programmes, these studies hold real potential for empowering people to live longer free from the heartbreak of dementia.”

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