Health, lifestyle changes can reduce dementia in Aboriginal Australians

The rate of dementia in older Aboriginal Australians could be reduced by simple changes in health and lifestyle, say epidemiologists.

Professors Tony Broe from Neuroscience Research Australia and Scott Henderson from Canberra Hospital say that risk factors such as smoking and stroke are contributing to rates of dementia up to five times higher than the rest of the Australian population.

“The need for prevention of dementia in the Aboriginal elderly is manifestly clear,” said Professor Broe and Henderson. “Numbers are likely to increase markedly, particularly if healthcare interventions in younger individuals are successful in coming decades.

“This is a significant call to action for governments and those engaged in closing the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.”

Professor Broe is currently conducting research at Neuroscience Research Australia into the links between early-life factors and later-life health and cognitive outcomes in Aboriginal communities with a view to improving longevity and healthy ageing.

Their editorial was published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry alongside a study from the Western Australian Centre for Health and Ageing investigating factors that contribute to dementia in Aboriginal Australians.

The study found that 27% of Aboriginal Australians over the age of 65 years living in the Kimberley Region have dementia.

It also found a high prevalence of risk factors that damage brain function and contribute to dementia, such as a lack of formal education, smoking, a previous stroke and head injury.

These are the same risk factors that cause Aboriginal Australians to die much earlier than non-Indigenous Australians.

“The high prevalence is at odds with what has consistently been found in other populations with low literacy and a non-western lifestyle,” they said. “This on its own is cause for great concern.”

The study found that 40% of the population had no formal education, 35% smoked, 9% had previously had a stroke and 51% had suffered a head injury involving loss of consciousness.

“A reduced level of education is a recognised risk factor for late life dementia,” said Professors Broe and Henderson. “This finding further supports the need for a major social and financial investment in education for Aboriginal children.”

Both remote and urban Aboriginal populations smoke at around twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. Smoking is potentially linked to rates of stroke as well as dementia.

Traumatic brain injury with loss of consciousness has been suggested as a potential risk factor for dementia in previous epidemiological studies.

“The role of head injury as a potential causal factor for the high rates of non-specified dementia found in this study certainly merits further study and intervention,” said Professors Broe and Henderson.

“Action is needed right away to reduce the risk factors identified in this study,” they said. “The good news is that all four environmental risk factors contributing to dementia are potentially modifiable. Their impact can be lessened through changes in health and lifestyle.”