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Prevent dementia with exercise and ashtrays, WHO says

May 14, 2019

The UN health agency's report advises "what is good for our heart, is also good for our brain." Regular exercise and a good diet are part of the plan for a public health response to dementia.

Riding a bicycle in Germany
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Frankenberg

In the report issued on Tuesday, the UN's World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the number of people with dementia is expected to triple over the next 30 years. He highlighted the condition as a global health priority. 

While age is the strongest known factor for decline, it is not an inevitable consequence of aging, the report found.

"We need to do everything we can to reduce our risk of dementia," Ghebreyesus said. "The scientific evidence gathered for these Guidelines confirm what we have suspected for some time, that what is good for our heart, is also good for our brain." 

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom GhebreyesusImage: Reuters/D. Balibouse

The new guidelines recommend specific interventions for reducing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia, a general term for a reduction in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.

The main recommendations are:

  • regular exercise
  • non-smoking
  • avoiding harmful use of alcohol
  • weight control
  • eating a healthy diet
  • maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

"While there is no curative treatment for dementia, the proactive management of modifiable risk factors can delay or slow onset or progression of the disease," WHO Assistant Director General Ren Minghui wrote in the report.

The report warned vitamins and supplements were not useful, and could even be harmful if taken in large amounts. The study did not include environmental factors.

The guidelines are designed for use by healthcare providers and also for governments, policy-makers and planning authorities.

Support for the carers

The WHO also recommends caring for the carers of those with declining cognitive functions.

The WHO has set up an online training program for carers with advice on care management and dealing with behavioral changes, as well as looking after their own health.

"Dementia carers are very often family members who need to make considerable adjustments to their family and professional lives to care for their loved ones," said Devora Kestel, director of the department of mental health and substance abuse at WHO.

A growing problem

Dementia, which affects memory, thinking, language and judgement, results from a variety of diseases and injuries that affect the brain.

It currently affects about 50 million people globally with 10 million new cases every year.

The costs of caring for people with dementia is expected to rise to $2 trillion (roughly €1.8 trillion) per year by 2030.

jm/msh (Reuters, AP)

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