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Exploring environmental risk factors for dementia

In a recent article on the Centre for Dementia Prevention website, Dr Tom Russ discussed the geographical differences in dementia morality rates.

Following on from this work, the University of Edinburgh researchers at the Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre and Centre for Dementia Prevention undertook a systematic literature overview to look into environmental risk factors for developing dementia. One of the authors, Dr Tom Russ gave a radio interview for BBC Good Morning Scotland (Tom’s interview is at 2h 51min – 2h 55min) and is now elaborating on the background of the environmental risk factors publication.

Headshot of Dr Tom Russ

The research into environmental risk factors stems from an understanding that about a third of dementia risk remains unexplained – Tom and colleagues suggest that part of this may be due to environmental risk factors. While the researchers shortlisted a number of factors that were found to be associated with an increased risk of developing dementia, Tom emphasises that their current work only lists factors that are associated with dementia; no causal effects can be inferred. As such, there is now a need to focus on the risk factors identified and establish the contributions any of the risk factors may have. The ultimate aim would be to explore whether there is something that causes dementia and whether this can be interfered in any way.

Tom emphasises that dementia is a growing global public health crisis as by 2050 over 70% of dementia cases are going to be in low to middle income countries. Looking at environmental variation, air pollution is a significant problem in a lot of low to middle income countries. Tom also argues that if these risk factors prove to be robustly linked to dementia and are modifiable it might be possible to delay or prevent the onset of some cases of dementia. It is therefore the next step for the researchers to focus on the factors identified and inform our understanding of what may be harmful for brain health.

The article is free for anyone to access and can be found by clicking the citation below.

Killin, L.O.J., Starr, J.M., Shiue, I. J., Russ, T. M. (2016). Environmental risk factors for dementia: a systematic review. BMC Geriatrics 16:175