Dementia checks from 40 to be carried out by GPs under plan to tackle disease

Laura Donnelly
The test will be part of the NHS health check, which is offered to patients aged 40 to 74 - Alamy

Family doctors will start assessing patients’ dementia risks from the age of 40 onwards, under a national plan to reduce rates of the disease.

Ministers said the ambitious programme aimed to keep everyone “as healthy as possible, for as long as possible” while officials said the 15-minute check “could add years to your life”.

Every area of the country has been told to introduce the assessments within the next 12 months, as part of the NHS health check, which is offered to patients between the age of 40 and 74.

GPs will be expected to discuss patients’ current lifestyles, and the steps they could introduce to reduce the chance of the condition.

Public Health England said up to one third of dementia cases could be prevented by changes in everyday habits, but warned that research shows just two per cent of people are aware of all the things they could do to reduce their risk.

It’s free and fast, and effective - just 15 minutes that could add years to your life

Duncan Selbie, Public Health England chief executive

Studies suggest that exercise is the most significant single protection against dementia, while maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure control also offers significant benefits

Research has found that one third of all Alzheimer’s disease cases can be linked to lifestyle factors – such as exercise, obesity, smoking and alcohol.

A study published in the Lancet Neurology found those who did not achieve three 20-minute bursts of vigorous exercise per week, such as jogging or football, or five 30-minute sessions of moderate activity, such as walking were 82 per cent more likely to go on to develop dementia.

Obesity in mid-life increased the risks of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease by 60 per cent, while high blood pressure raised the threat by 61 per cent, the analysis found.

Explained: The difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia

Steve Brine, public health minister said: “Early detection and prevention are vital to the health of our nation and our programmes in this area are among the most ambitious in the world.

“Our aim is to keep everyone as healthy as possible, for as long as possible, which is why we are introducing advice on dementia prevention as part of our free health checks.”

Officials said healthcare professionals to talk to their patients about how they can reduce their dementia risk, such as by maintaining their social life, keeping mentally and physically active and stopping smoking.

Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England said: “The NHS Health Check is one of the largest public health prevention programmes in the world with almost 7 million in the last five years having benefited from a check, and it’s reaching the people where it’s most needed with the greatest numbers in the most disadvantaged areas. This success is down to local councils delivering and they should be proud of this achievement.”

He added: “It’s free and fast, and effective - just 15 minutes that could add years to your life.”

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It is estimated that over 850,000 people are living with dementia in the UK with little public understanding of how it’s possible to reduce the risk. While much of the NHS Health Check focuses on reducing cardiovascular disease risk, the advice for preventing dementia is similar. Experts say “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain”.

Data published this week shows nine in 10 people who should be eligible for checks have been offered them, and around half of those offered them have taken them up. As much as 85 per cent of cardiovascular disease is  preventable.

The checks are supposed to mean patients are given advice about how to cut their risk of a range of diseases, such as cancers, diabetes, heart and respiratory diseases; being a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, drinking in moderation and keeping active.

The checks also encourage patients to “know their numbers” - blood pressure and cholesterol readings - and to take preventive measures, such as statins.

What are the early signs of dementia?

Hilary Evans, chief executive at Alzheimer’s Research UK, welcomed the plans to expand the pilot schemes across the country.

She said: “Sadly, less than a third of people know they can do something to lower their risk of dementia.

"By changing how we think about dementia and intervening in midlife before the diseases that cause dementia begin, we can improve the likelihood of healthy ageing.

"The NHS Health Check provides a pivotal opportunity to impact a person’s wellbeing, not only for the next year, but potentially for decades to come."