Finns Put their Finger on Dementia Prevention

Dementia can be delayed or even avoided. That is the hopeful message that emerges from a large scale study published on March 12, 2015 by a group of distinguished Scandinavian researchers. The study is believed to be the first of its kind that demonstrates the positive effect of applying a number of different lifestyle changes to a chronic disease which has so far eluded cure.

The study may have huge implications for both individuals and governments worldwide as populations age rapidly and dementia is threatening to overwhelm the ability of health care systems to cope. In the UK, for example, over 800,000 people have been diagnosed with dementia and the number is expected to double in the next few years. At the moment, individuals over 75 face a one in three risk of developing dementia and up to one in four hospital beds are occupied by dementia patients.

The breakthrough Finnish Geriatric study, which is known by the acronym FINGER,was conducted by a large group of the major geriatric research organizations in Finland and Sweden including the world renowned Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and the Helsinki based National Institute for Health and Welfare of Finland.

A total of 2,654 individuals aged between 60 and 77 were recruited from the general population of people at risk for developing dementia and/or Alzheimer’s. The participants agreed to be followed for two years and were divided into a control group who received general health advice and an intervention group that received targeted support to improve their diet, increase their exercise, practice their cognitive abilities and monitor their cardiovascular health.

The group given extra advice received support that went way beyond a general admonition to “eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, walk the dog, keep doing crosswords and watch your blood pressure.” For example, exercise programs were supervised by study therapists and consisted of individually tailored programs for progressive muscle strength training and separate aerobic exercise sessions. Cognitive training included ten group sessions led by psychologists supported by 72 individual training sessions. Diet advice was also administered through up to 12 sessions and was based on Finnish Nutrition guidelines and were both comprehensive and extremely detailed. For example, sucrose intake was limited to 50grams per day and participants were advised to consume vegetable margarine and rapeseed oil instead of butter.

The vascular health of volunteers was also measured and monitored closely. The study physicians and nurses held regular meetings at which they took measurements including blood pressure, weight and body mass index as well as hip and waist circumference plus full physical examinations. 

Social activity- a component regarded as important for maintaining a healthy mindset, was also stimulated through multiple meetings.

After two years the intervention appears to have paid off. The group that received the broadly based but carefully calibrated intervention advice and support scored significantly higher than the control group on a widely recognized brain functioning test know as Neuropsychiatric Test Battery (NTB). This group scored higher on important measurements that make up the overall NTB score including: Executive Functioning, Processing Speed and Memory.

The study is characterized by the researchers as a proof-of-concept trial. Following the positive results of the first two years, they are following the volunteer population for a further a seven years. The research team hopes that the glimmer of a light that their approach has provided to one of the world’s most frightening diseases will lead to similar trials in other settings and other populations.

Everist Health is already in discussions with a national government seeking to further the Scandinavian research. The company is offering to make available their unique non-invasive cardiovascular device, AngioDefender, and heart age calculator as one important component of a dementia trial. 

Read the full article in The Lancet:

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