Treating dementia before it happens

A unique approach to identifying dementia risk factors and developing strategies for prevention.

In the past 12 years, 4,000 fewer Ontarians were diagnosed with dementia than statistically expected. Dr. Vladimir Hachinski, Distinguished University Professor, wants to understand why.

“We know that dementia is incurable, untreatable, and that we haven’t been able to find a ‘magic bullet’ that would outright stop the disease. But as we’re already preventing some cases of dementia now, we want to see if there is an even better way,” he explained.

Dementia, a condition which manifests in progressive difficulties with memory, thinking and behaviour, is closely linked with both stroke and heart disease. These three conditions share risk factors, like hypertension and obesity, but also act as risk factors for each other.

Hachinski and his collaborators, which span several departments at Western University, six provinces and four countries, are working to identify both individual and geographically-specific factors that contribute to and protect against the development of these conditions, in order to create a comprehensive dementia prevention strategy.

Early in his career, Hachinski was at the forefront of a similar effort to prevent incidents of stroke, a condition also thought to be untreatable at the time. Along with Dr. John Norris, he was successful in opening the first stroke unit in Canada at Sunnybrook Hospital. With the development of strategies like these, more than 90 per cent of strokes are now considered preventable – and the impact on related conditions, like dementia, can already be observed.

The study of the complex, interrelated nature of this trifecta of conditions, and the factors which impact all three in turn, requires a first-of-its-kind approach that combines environmental, socio-economic and individual health data from across Canada.

“There are things that unless you put them together, you’ll never see. And because nobody has put together all these factors, we are going to find things that nobody else has found,” Hachinski said.

Thanks to donor support, Hachinski’s team is able to gain access to new databases, as well as analytic and artificial intelligence tools, and support young researchers to expand their scope of research and discover new links between health, lifestyle and dementia.

Importantly, they have the ability to comprehensively map regions within Canada with high and low rates of prevention. Certain risk factors, such as access to healthy food, air quality or socialization opportunities, are more salient within some communities than others. With continued support, Hachinski hopes to tap into the resources and expertise necessary to develop tailored, effective prevention strategies that can be implemented on a local level.

“We have to make the environment friendly enough that a healthy lifestyle is possible. We could find answers that could be applied not only for our region, but across Canada and internationally.”

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