The road to dementia prevention


Photo credit: Delilah Esber.

Dementia researcher Dr Joyce Siette.

Cognitive ageing and dementia are global health priorities, according to a recent study published in The Lancet. The study’s authors, Emma Nichols, Jaimie Steinmetz, Stein Emil Vollset and Kai Fukutaki, say the number of adults ( 40 years and older) living with dementia worldwide is expected to nearly triple by 2050, unless countries address risk factors.

Despite there being no cure for the condition, recent research suggests that two in five dementia cases may be attributable to 12 common modifiable risk factors.

Dr Joyce Siette, a MARCS Institute scholar at Western Sydney University, leads a research program combining psychology, social psychiatry and public health to identify the social risks, causes and consequences of risk factors on dementia.

Dr Siette’s research vision is to maximise the real-world value of research on reducing dementia risk and moving people towards effective digital interventions to support healthy lifestyles. She recognises that dementia is a global health priority and prioritises the need to focus on preventing it.

“Evidence shows that over 40 per cent of your risk could be identified through different lifestyle activities … Essentially my endeavours focus on how we can empower and support people to retain their memories for as long as possible,” she says.

Dr Siette’s research program is called Brain Bootcamp. It is a program where participants receive a list of resources and tools to manage their own health in simple and easy ways. It is the first strategic step towards building digital initiatives that are less time-intensive, able to target multiple risk factors and can enable individuals to make and sustain lifestyle changes.

“Early findings indicate significant reductions in dementia risk following engagement in the program … Results will be used to further deliver data-driven decisions for dementia mitigation,” she says.

There are three phases of the project:

  1. Dementia prevention: enabling people to live dementia-free lives by focusing on healthy lifestyle strategies.
  2. Dementia diagnosis: creating more sensitive tools and assessments that enable the team to detect memory impairment in older adults.
  3. Focus on people who have received the diagnosis and how health systems and primary care services better support people with dementia.

She and her team would love to help people achieve that.

In Australia, almost half a million people live with the disease, and according to Dementia Australia, 1.6 million people care for them. Forbes recently reported that dementia cases would rise in every country, with the most minor estimated increases in high-income Asia Pacific (53%) and western Europe (74%), and the largest growth is predicted to be in north Africa and the Middle East (367%) and eastern Sub-Saharan Africa (357%).

Laura Dodds is a WSU PhD candidate at the MARCS Institute for Brain Behaviour and Development. She works on the project with the empowerment of her “guardian angel”.

Laura Dodds’ experience of dementia came when her late grandmother, Marie Frances Whittaker, who was diagnosed with the disease. She was a stenographer to the Dean of the college and inspired Laura to become a PhD student. During Ms Whittaker’s last days alive, Ms Dodds made her proud by telling her grandmother about her studies.


A woman smiling for the camera
Marie Frances and Laura Dodds good times. (Photo credit: Laura Dodds.)

Ms Dodds’s grandmother is now her “guardian angel”.

Ms Dodds had a strong bond with her grandmother and reminisced about her warmth, but noting that the disorder affected her personality and led to some aggressive behaviours.

Ms Dodds believes that with her current research-based knowledge, she could have done things differently with her grandmother. Losing memory while individuals age is often misconceived as usual, however, Ms Dodds says, “It’s really important to not give up on anyone diagnosed with dementia … If you’re seeing signs of it, you need to take notice early and have a conversation early, as tough as that conversation would be.”

“I think Joyce’s research really sheds light on that, where she’s trying to allow people to have that basic understanding of dementia risk and the fact that you could change your lifestyle and behaviour to reduce the risk or delay of onset of dementia.”