London neurologist helps pen international dementia prevention guidelines

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Dr. Vladimir Hachinski (Free Press file photo)

An internationally acclaimed Western University neurologist is going global once again, helping pen new international guidelines to help patients stave off dementia.

Vladimir Hachinski contributed to and reviewed the recommendations released by the World Health Organization earlier this week — a gold-standard that will inform how doctors treat patients and how governments address the growing health issue.

“Without brain health there is no health,” said Hachinski, a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Western behind decades of internationally recognized stroke and dementia research.

Dementia, a chronic and progressive brain condition associated with memory loss, personality changes and impaired cognition, affects about 50 million people around the world, including more than 400,000 seniors in Canada.

The number of people living with the degenerative condition is expected to rise 68 per cent over the next two decades. By 2031, the estimated annual health-care cost of caring for dementia patients in Canada will reach $16.6 billion, double the total from two decades earlier.

Researchers around the world have been looking for medications to block or treat dementia-causing proteins in the brain for years, Hachinski said. But addressing the condition requires a lot more than just a miracle drug.

“People keep looking for this silver bullet, but the truth is that we have to do more than one thing because more than one thing affects the brain,” he said. “We can do something about stroke and some dementias right now.”

The 77-page WHO report analyzed the latest research on lifestyle risk factors. Getting regular exercise, eating healthy, not smoking, avoiding alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar are among the new dementia prevention guidelines.

The report is only Hachinski’s latest international endeavour. He’s a former vice-president of the World Stroke Association, a one-time president of the World Federation of Neurology and is headed to Norway this June to speak at a European neurology conference.

Hachinski, a member of the Order of Canada for his work, said Canada is well positioned to be a leader in boosting the profile of stroke and dementia prevention globally.

“Canada is at the forefront of some of these things,” he said. “Canadians are highly respected as a country, we have a reputation to be reasonable and collaborative.”

The new guidelines give more power to what dementia researchers have studied for years, said Nalini Sen, research program director for the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

“For us, the World Health Organization guidelines really confirm that we’re on the right track,” said Sen.  “There’s no cure for dementia so focusing on preventative measures is the most beneficial option for people to consider.”

The link between dementia and heart or cardiovascular health can’t be understated, she said. Research shows at least 50 per cent of dementia cases are linked to stroke or cardiovascular disease, Sen said. Thirty per cent of people who have a stroke go on to develop vascular dementia within the first year after the stroke.

“The good news is that cardiovascular disease and risk factors are modifiable, which means they can be managed through lifestyle changes,” she said. “What’s good for your heart is good for your brain.”

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