Dementia Charity Launches Scientific Review to Understand Benefits and Risk of Sport

Alzheimer’s Research UK is undertaking a comprehensive review into the links between sport and dementia risk. The announcement comes today (Wednesday 24 November), with the charity partnering with The Health Policy Partnership to carry out the six-month project.

Dementia is a heart-breaking condition that affects nearly one million people in the UK. It commonly affects people’s memory and thinking, which can bring confusion and fear not only to those living with dementia but also for their loved ones.

Recent media attention has focussed on high profile dementia cases, particularly within the sporting community. Emerging research shows some ex-professional sports players are at increased risk of developing the condition, but there has been little evidence to determine why this is the case.

There are lots of factors that can contribute to a person’s risk of developing dementia, and these can sometimes interact with each other in ways that are difficult to study and understand.

When it comes to dementia risk, age, genetics, and lifestyle are all at play. A landmark report estimated that eliminating 12 potentially modifiable risk factors linked to the condition could prevent around 40% of dementia cases.

Now, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, Alzheimer’s Research UK, have partnered with The Health Policy Partnership (HPP) to conduct a new review to investigate the link between sport and dementia.

The research project will last for six months and not only look at the current evidence base for the benefits and risks of sports but will also involve consultation with clinical, research and sporting stakeholders to understand any existing gaps in knowledge.

The charity hopes this work will help direct future research questions and funding.

Hat Hewitt, who owns her own CrossFit gym in Watford, shared this hope of making sure we understand the benefits and risk of sport. “Exercise clearly plays an important role in my life and we hear a lot about the importance of exercise for our health, particularly around our mental wellbeing. This has been particularly important throughout mine and my sisters’ time caring for my mum who is living with a rare variant of Alzheimer’s, called posterior cortical atrophy (PCA). Exercise helps my mental wellbeing now but also protects it for the future.

“Our brains are amazing and do a host of things day-to-day that we don’t even think of but dementia can put this at risk as it has for my mum. Funding research into the benefits and potential risks of sport when it comes to dementia is important. It will allow people to make more informed decisions about their lifestyles, which can only be a good thing.”

Speaking about the new research Hilary Evans, CEO of Alzheimer’s Research UK said: “We know sport brings a range of health benefits, which also are good for the brain, but the more we understand about the potential risks of sport and their contribution towards the overall risk of dementia, the better.

“We are committed to improving the understanding of the risk factors for dementia with a view to minimising the number of dementia cases in the future. With new evidence emerging, and the relationship between certain sports and dementia risk receiving increasing scrutiny, this review is vital to help inform the direction of future research in this area.

“The review fits in with Alzheimer’s Research UK’s existing research into risk and dementia prevention, helping realise our vision to live in a world free of the fear, heartbreak and harm that dementia brings.”

Christine Ridout from The Health Policy Partnership said: “We know the impact dementia can have on the lives of so many and we are excited to partner with Alzheimer’s Research UK on this important research. This comprehensive review of the evidence on the risks and benefits of sport in relation to dementia will help us identify worldwide gaps in knowledge and highlight lessons that can be learnt across different countries and sports. We will also closely consult with experts from the sporting, clinical and scientific fields in the UK to learn from their experiences and discuss where evidence is missing or unclear. Combining these approaches, we hope to build an evidence-based platform that can shape the research and policy agenda for years to come.”

Prof Jon Schott, Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Chief Medical Officer, said: “Evidence suggests that for most of the population, what is good for heart health is also good for the brain. There’s been growing interest in the link between head injuries and dementia, from the more severe traumatic brain injury to repeated sports injuries. While we know that one specific type of dementia – chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – is associated with head injury there is still a limited amount of robust research in the area. We need a review like this to prioritise the most important questions to answer and shape research in the future.

 

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