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Public unaware of the factors that increase the risk of dementia

Just 2% of people in Britain can identify all the health and lifestyle factors that can increase risk of developing dementia.

More than a quarter (28%) of the British public is unable to correctly identify any potentially modifiable risk factor for developing dementia, according to new findings from the British Social Attitudes survey, which was commissioned by Public Health England (PHE).

There is growing evidence that a third of dementia cases could be a result of factors potentially in our control, and actions like taking regular exercise and not smoking can reduce your risk of developing it. This means there is huge potential for prevention.

The survey, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), asked the public if they could identify any of the following risk factors: heavy drinking, smoking, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes as well as the protective factor of taking regular exercise and found just 2% of the public is able to identify all of them.

Also, more than 1 in 4 people (27%) in Britain incorrectly believe that there is nothing anyone can do to reduce their risks of getting dementia.

Respondents were asked whether they agreed with the statement “there is nothing anyone can do to reduce their risks of getting dementia”. 27% incorrectly agree that there is nothing anyone can do; a further 26% neither agree nor disagree; and only 43% correctly disagreed with the statement.

Older people are more likely to agree that there is nothing anyone can do to reduce their risk of developing dementia: 33% of those aged 65 and over said this compared with 26% of those under 65.

Dr Charles Alessi, Senior Dementia Advisor at PHE, said yesterday:

Dementia is not an inevitable part of ageing. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain and simple steps like giving up smoking, reducing alcohol intake, losing weight and taking regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing dementia in the future.

In the absence of a cure for dementia, prevention is the best means we have to reduce its impact on the public. Today’s findings highlight the importance of PHE’s work on the NHS Health Check dementia pilot and campaigns like One You, which raise awareness of the fact it’s never too late to take control of your health and provide adults with personalised tools with which to do it.

Susan Reid, Research Director at NatCen, said yesterday:

Today’s results draw attention to the high levels of uncertainty among the public regarding dementia risk factors. Whilst most people are able to recognise dementia symptoms, many believe there’s nothing anyone can do to reduce their risk. But this isn’t the case.

Dr Matthew Norton, Director of Policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said yesterday:

Public awareness of the risk factors for dementia is essential for empowering people to make changes that may lower their chances of developing the condition. While we don’t yet have sure-fire preventions, research suggests keeping healthy from mid-life could help reduce the risk of dementia.

With 850,000 people already living with dementia in the UK, we must do all we can to help people understand the risk factors for dementia now if we are to influence dementia rates in the future.

George McNamara, Head of Policy at Alzheimer’s Society said yesterday:

There’s no better time than today to start making changes to your life and reduce your risk of dementia. A good way to begin is with regular physical activity – like a brisk walk or dancing – along with a healthy balanced diet.

Try and stop smoking, keep your blood pressure and cholesterol in check, and ensure you manage and get support for other health conditions. Keep your brain active too – research suggests people who do activities that stimulate the brain, like reading or puzzles, are less likely to develop dementia, compared with those who don’t.

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  1. Read the report on the BSA website.
  2. PHE’s Health matters provides tools to help support health professionals and local authorities to reduce dementia risk.
  3. PHE is working with Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society to extend the dementia risk reduction component of the NHS Health Check to all 40 to 64 year olds at sites in Birmingham, Bury, Manchester and Southampton. This will see over 250 GP practices raising awareness about dementia risk reduction among people in midlife as part of the health check for the first time, and will also test a community based model for sharing the message ‘What’s good for your heart is good for your brain’.
  4. One You, is a ground-breaking new campaign to help adults across the country avoid future diseases caused by modern day life and includes the How are You quiz, online tools and apps to help people take control of their health.
  5. The Alzheimer’s Society Be Head Strong risk reduction booklet is available on their website.
  6. Contact Dominic Stanley at the PHE press office 020 7654 8039 or Leigh Marshall at the NatCen press office 7549 8506, for further information.
  7. In 2015, PHE commissioned sets of questions on the British Social Attitudes survey (BSA). The paper launched today presents analysis of the results of the questions about dementia.
  8. BSA is an authoritative source of data on the views of the British public, carried out annually since 1983. It uses a random probability sampling methodology to yield a representative sample of adults living in private households in Britain.
  9. The National Centre for Social Research, Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to promote a better-informed society through high quality social research.
  10. The 2015 BSA survey consisted of 4,328 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Britain with a response rate of 51%. Interviewing was carried out between 4 July and 2 November. 2,167 respondents answered questions about dementia face-to-face and 1,827 filled in a further set of questions on a self-completion questionnaire.
  11. Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities. It does this through world-class science, knowledge and intelligence, advocacy, partnerships and the delivery of specialist public health services. PHE is an operationally autonomous executive agency of the Department of Health. Follow us on Twitter: @PHE_uk and


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