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Using NHS Health Checks to deliver risk reduction messages

Too often we hear that dementia is just part and parcel of getting older, that nothing can be done to stop this cruel condition in its tracks. But we know that’s not the case. Dementia is not a by-product of ageing, it is caused by diseases that attack the brain – and diseases can be defeated.

We know changes in the brain start many years before we see the symptoms of dementia, so efforts to reduce risk are likely to have the greatest impact earlier in life – and we’ve recently seen some success with this.

Along with Public Health England and Alzheimer's Society, Alzheimer's Research UK ran an innovative pilot project which saw, for the first time, dementia risk reduction messages delivered to 40-64-year-olds during their NHS Health Check.

The pilot was carried out at community sites in Manchester, Bury, Southampton and Birmingham. What the results showed was promise in shifting public awareness and understanding of dementia risk, something that is key if we are to bring down the numbers of people developing the condition in the coming years.

Focussing on ‘what’s good for your heart is good for your brain’, the advice included messages about lifestyle measures that most of us are already familiar with for other health conditions: stopping smoking, being physically active, eating healthily, maintaining a healthy weight, drinking less alcohol, connecting with people and keeping mentally active.

As dementia risk is a complex mix of age, genetic and lifestyle factors, these measures aren’t a sure-fire prevention but they might help to reduce your overall risk of dementia.

Of the 164 people who recalled the dementia messaging after their check-up, 75% said they were more likely to adopt a healthy lifestyle to reduce the risk of developing dementia, while 80% said the advice would have some impact on their behaviour.

While we are delighted with what this pilot has achieved, we must now take it further and ensure that all people in midlife are given advice about dementia risk during their NHS Health Check.

This is the ideal platform, and the right time, to engage with people about dementia risk reduction and the advice will also be beneficial in improving people’s overall health. Who knows, it could be the connection to dementia that triggers a positive lifestyle change, which in turn could also help combat the risk of other conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

By rolling this advice out nationally, we would be addressing the strong public desire to find out more about dementia, which has been growing as the condition has risen in the public’s consciousness. This growing awareness is partly due to the sheer number of people impacted by this devastating condition. Currently, there are 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia, and this number is set to rise to one million by 2025. But by encouraging more people to take up healthy habits, we hope to see fewer people developing the condition in the future.

The results of this study, along with our calls to make dementia information mandatory for all NHS Health Checks, could not be more timely. Only last month, we saw the headlines dominated with news suggesting that nine modifiable risk factors, if eliminated, could potentially prevent one third of dementia cases.

With the NHS Health Check, we have an unmissable opportunity to empower people with advice that may help them reduce their risk of conditions such as dementia, and these results show how much of a difference we have the potential to make.