A new “mega centre” for dementia research has been launched to tackle the rising prevalence of cognitive decline among the dramatically increasing ageing population in Australia.
One in five Australians will be aged over 65 by 2053 and a quarter of them will have some degree of cognitive impairment. Just this week Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed dementia has become the country’s biggest killer of women.
Leading expert in cognitive ageing and population health, Professor of Psychology Kaarin Anstey has joined University of New South Wales and Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) to head a team of researchers assigned to investigating new ways to address this urgent health and societal problem.
“Population ageing is one of the main challenges we are facing as a country,” Prof Anstey said.
“The number of Australians aged 65 and older will increase dramatically by 2050 and this has all sorts of implications for a reduction in labour force. We are going to have issues with providing care.
“Just with natural biological ageing people develop problems with vision and hearing and cognition and then we have age-related diseases.
“It’s going to change the fabric of our society given that we will have a higher proportion of older adults than younger adults in some point in time,” she said.
Despite people living longer, most aren’t aware of the risk factors for dementia start early in life.
In middle age, high blood pressure, obesity, sedentary lifestyles, smoking, diabetes all increase the risk of dementia in late life.
Confusingly though, some of those risk factors no longer matter in older people who don’t have yet have dementia, says Professor Anstey.
“For example obesity in older adults isn’t a risk factor for dementia but it is for middle age adults, so we don’t fully understand the mechanisms underlying these, ” explained Prof Anstey.
For unknown reasons, she says, women are also more likely to develop dementia in late life.
It’s hoped Prof Anstey and her team’s research will improve understanding and generate a greater awareness in order to boost each individual’s ‘cognitive capital’.
“Our cognitive abilities enable us to know who we are but also enables us to function in the workplace, to make decisions, to participate in society,” Prof Anstey said.
“It’s a resource that each of us have individually but it’s also a societal resource – it’s got an economic value because our cognitive capital allows us to be productive as we age,” said Prof Anstey.
“If we address this through lifestyle interventions and through developing helping brains in children we are actually investing in our society by having healthier older people.”
The first project for the team – working in in collaboration with the World Health Organisation – will include the development of evidence-based dementia prevention guidelines.