Category Archives: Asthma

Lifestyle changes could prevent over a third of dementia cases, report suggests

More than a third of dementia cases might be avoided by tackling aspects of lifestyle including education, exercise, blood pressure and hearing, a new report suggests.

Approximately 45 million people worldwide were thought to be living with dementia in 2015, at an estimated cost of $ 818bn.

And numbers are rising: in England and Wales it is estimated that 1.2 million people will be living with dementia by 2040 – a 57% increase from 2016 figures, largely driven by people living longer.

But the new report from the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention and care, stresses that dementia is not an inescapable part of ageing – and that action can be taken to reduce risk.

“There are a lot of things that individuals can do, and there are a lot of things that public health and policy can do, to reduce the numbers of people developing dementia,” said Gill Livingston, professor of psychiatry of older people at University College London and a co-author of the report.

For many of the factors, including exercise and social activities, the best approach to reducing dementia risk is not yet clear, but Livingston stresses that steps can still be taken. “We expect it to be a long-term change that will be needed for exercise; joining a gym for two weeks is probably not going to do it,” she said.

Clive Ballard, professor of age-related diseases at the University of Exeter medical school and also a co-author of the report, added that the evidence suggests individuals should also try to follow a Mediterranean diet, maintain a healthy weight and keep an eye on their blood pressure.

In total, the study looked at nine lifestyle factors linked to an increased risk of dementia.

The results reveal that as many as 35% of dementia cases could, at least in theory, be prevented, with 9% linked to midlife hearing loss, 8% to leaving education before secondary school, 5% to smoking in later life and 4% to later life depression. Social isolation, later life diabetes, midlife high blood pressure, midlife obesity and lack of exercise in later life also contributed to potentially avoidable cases of dementia, the report notes.

By contrast, 7% of cases would be prevented if a solution to the leading genetic risk factor for dementia were found.

The authors say the findings highlight the importance of health and behaviour throughout life on the risk of developing dementia later on.

But they admit that the estimate that more than a third of dementia cases could be prevented is a best case scenario, with the figures based on a number of assumptions, including that each factor could be completely tackled. “I think the realistic figure is probably nearer 5%,” said Ballard, although he added that even a 5% reduction would mean 5,000 fewer dementia cases in the UK per year.

The authors also acknowledge that for some of the factors flagged it is not yet clear whether interventions could reduce the risk of dementia or delay its onset. Debate also exists around whether factors such as depression and social isolation drive an increased risk of dementia, or whether changes in the brain that lead to dementia could be behind such issues.

“There is lots of evidence that depression is associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. What we don’t know is whether treating depression better prevents it,” added Ballard.

Even so, Fiona Matthews, professor of epidemiology at Newcastle University who was not involved in the report, said that interventions for depression and social isolation could still prove valuable. “If we could actually resolve some of that issue, even if it is not 100% causal, it is likely we might be able to slow [dementia] progression – even if [an individual] is on a pathway to developing dementia already,” she said.

But Matthews noted that the report also showed that the majority of cases of dementia were not linked to the potentially preventable factors flagged, although she added that the proposed areas for action could offer myriad health benefits beyond lowering dementia risk.

However, the authors pointed out that an intervention that delayed dementia onset and progression by even a year could decrease the number of people with dementia worldwide in 2050 by nine million.

Dr Doug Brown, director of research at Alzheimer’s Society, said that the estimate that more than a third of dementia cases could be preventable was a cause for celebration, but noted that difficulties remain.

“Not all of the nine risk factors identified are easily modifiable – factors like poor education and social isolation are incredibly challenging to address. But there are easier wins, particularly cardiovascular factors like lowering blood pressure and smoking cessation,” he said.

“Though it’s not inevitable, dementia is currently set to be the 21st century’s biggest killer. We all need to be aware of the risks and start making positive lifestyle changes.”

Half of pupils expelled from school have mental health issue, study finds

Half of all pupils expelled from school are suffering from a recognised mental health problem, according to a study.

Those who are permanently excluded find themselves at a significant disadvantage, with only one in a hundred going on to attain five good GCSEs, which are often used as a benchmark of academic success.

The majority will end up in prison, says the study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which estimates that of the 86,000-strong prison population, more then 54,000 were excluded at school.

The IPPR says its research lays bare the “broken system” facing excluded pupils. It flags up high levels of mental health issues among permanently excluded students – at least one in two, compared with one in 50 pupils in the wider population.

The thinktank also highlights the disadvantages such children face, as those excluded are four times more likely to grow up in poverty and twice as likely to be living in care. They are also seven times more likely to have special educational needs than those who are not excluded, the report claims.

After exclusion, the study says there is a downward spiral of underachievement, with teachers in schools catering for excluded pupils twice as likely to have no educational qualifications.

Kiran Gill, an IPPR associate fellow and founder of The Difference, which works to improve mental health provision for excluded pupils, described the system as “burningly unjust”.

She said: “Theresa May says she is committed to improving the mental health of young people. Addressing the most vulnerable children being thrown out of England’s schools is a good place to start. Because unequal treatment of mental health may be an injustice, but the discrimination of school exclusions is a crime.

“If the government is serious about real action on mental health, there needs to be dedicated funding and thought through solutions rather than sticking plasters on the symptoms of the problem.”

The IPPR research was published before the government’s latest annual figures on permanent and fixed period exclusions from schools in England in 2015-16, which is scheduled to be released on Thursday.

Responding to the report, the Department for Education said any decision to exclude should be lawful, reasonable and fair, and should only be used as a last resort in response to serious breaches of a school’s behaviour policy.

“This government is committed to working with local authorities and schools to ensure children in alternative provision receive a high quality education,” a DfE spokesperson said.

“We are strengthening the links between schools and NHS mental health staff and have announced plans for every secondary school to be offered mental health first aid training. Later this year we will publish a green paper with proposals for further improving mental health services.”

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here

Half of pupils expelled from school have mental health issue, study finds

Half of all pupils expelled from school are suffering from a recognised mental health problem, according to a study.

Those who are permanently excluded find themselves at a significant disadvantage, with only one in a hundred going on to attain five good GCSEs, which are often used as a benchmark of academic success.

The majority will end up in prison, says the study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, which estimates that of the 86,000-strong prison population, more then 54,000 were excluded at school.

The IPPR says its research lays bare the “broken system” facing excluded pupils. It flags up high levels of mental health issues among permanently excluded students – at least one in two, compared with one in 50 pupils in the wider population.

The thinktank also highlights the disadvantages such children face, as those excluded are four times more likely to grow up in poverty and twice as likely to be living in care. They are also seven times more likely to have special educational needs than those who are not excluded, the report claims.

After exclusion, the study says there is a downward spiral of underachievement, with teachers in schools catering for excluded pupils twice as likely to have no educational qualifications.

Kiran Gill, an IPPR associate fellow and founder of The Difference, which works to improve mental health provision for excluded pupils, described the system as “burningly unjust”.

She said: “Theresa May says she is committed to improving the mental health of young people. Addressing the most vulnerable children being thrown out of England’s schools is a good place to start. Because unequal treatment of mental health may be an injustice, but the discrimination of school exclusions is a crime.

“If the government is serious about real action on mental health, there needs to be dedicated funding and thought through solutions rather than sticking plasters on the symptoms of the problem.”

The IPPR research was published before the government’s latest annual figures on permanent and fixed period exclusions from schools in England in 2015-16, which is scheduled to be released on Thursday.

Responding to the report, the Department for Education said any decision to exclude should be lawful, reasonable and fair, and should only be used as a last resort in response to serious breaches of a school’s behaviour policy.

“This government is committed to working with local authorities and schools to ensure children in alternative provision receive a high quality education,” a DfE spokesperson said.

“We are strengthening the links between schools and NHS mental health staff and have announced plans for every secondary school to be offered mental health first aid training. Later this year we will publish a green paper with proposals for further improving mental health services.”

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here

Need a wheelchair? Pay for it yourself

“I feel like a prisoner who every now and again is let out on day release,” Kelly Palmer, 38, says from her home in Newport, south Wales.

Palmer has Marfan Syndrome – a genetic condition that affects ligaments and organs – as well as fibromyalgia and needs a power wheelchair full-time. But when she approached her GP to apply for a chair after her health deteriorated, she was told she wasn’t eligible. Even though her disability means she can’t propel a manual wheelchair, she didn’t meet the threshold to qualify for a power chair. “There was no help,” she says. “It was just ‘goodbye’.”

As there’s no one else at home to help, for the last 18 months Palmer is largely stuck in the house and she only goes out once every three weeks or so, usually for hospital appointments and only if a friend can drive her there and stay to push the chair.

Desperate, Palmer has turned to the internet and launched a crowdfunding appeal online to try and raise the £5,000 she needs for a suitable power chair. She got the idea from some friends who had done the same to raise money for their own wheelchairs but says pride means she’s been “putting it off” as a last resort. “I didn’t want to have to beg,” she says. “But I didn’t have the choice.”

Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people. The most popular way of doing this is through a number of crowdfunding websites, such as Kickstarter and JustGiving, which allows people to raise money for their own personal cause, a person in need, clubs, schools and communities through online appeals.

Palmer is by no means an isolated case. As the country celebrates paralympians at the World Para Athletics Championships in London this month, growing numbers of disabled people are unable to get the wheelchair they need on the NHS and are being forced to turn to the public. The amount of money raised for wheelchairs on JustGiving increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, from £365,000 to £1.8m, according to exclusive figures seen by The Guardian. While some of that increase is likely to be down to better awareness of the site, it’s a trend that is continuing. From January to July 2017, there has been a 59% increase in donations to disabled people asking for help to fund a wheelchair compared with the same period last year.

“JustGiving is often where people come when they have nowhere else to turn,” explains Rhys Goode, public relations director at JustGiving. “It’s remarkable to see the increase in people having to crowdfund for new wheelchairs – an item that’s so essential to their quality of life.”

Disability charity Scope says it gets regular calls from disabled people experiencing difficulties with funding for wheelchairs. Jean Merrilees, a helpline adviser at Scope, says: “With wheelchairs sometimes costing in excess of £10,000 we need to see the funding pressures the NHS is facing addressed, so disabled people can access specialist equipment that supports independent living, rather than many continuing having to bear the brunt of these costs themselves.”

Whizz-Kidz, a charity that provides wheelchairs for young people, states that many disabled children are not being provided with a suitable chair by their local NHS wheelchair service.

Last month, medics at the British Medical Association’s (BMA) annual meeting unanimously passed a motion calling for wheelchair users to have “timely access to chairs suitable for their individual conditions”, after warnings that cuts in services, a postcode lottery of availability and delays means that disabled patients are increasingly struggling to get their wheelchairs on the NHS.

Hannah Barham-Brown, the junior doctor who triggered the motion at the BMA, had to turn to crowdfunding herself two years ago to buy her own chair. “When I tell people I had to crowdfund for a wheelchair, they are gobsmacked,” she says. Barham-Brown, 29, was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) in 2015 during medical school. “I kept dislocating my knees,” she says. Within six months, she needed a wheelchair. But after going to her GP, she was told NHS wheelchair services would only offer her a heavyweight basic wheelchair or a £140 voucher towards another. Neither option was viable: Barham-Brown’s condition means a manual chair would dislocate her joints when she tried to push herself along and a suitable wheelchair would cost upwards of £2,000, money she didn’t have.

Barham-Brown had what she described as a meltdown. “Without a chair, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this job I’d trained so hard for. I wouldn’t be able to be a doctor,” she says. In panic, a friend from medical school put up a crowdfunding page to ask the public for help. Within 24 hours, they’d raised £2,000 – enough for the wheelchair. It enabled Barham-Brown to continue her training in south London but she says it’s “mindblowing” that disabled adults and children are being forced to resort to asking strangers for help online.

“It’s the basic tenet of the NHS: you have a need and it’s met. But it isn’t,” she says. “People are housebound and trapped in their homes. Yet nothing is being done.”

Local GP-led clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are ultimately responsible for securing and funding wheelchair services. A spokesperson for NHS England says it is working with the National Wheelchair Leadership Alliance – a group set up by Paralympian and crossbench peer Tanni Grey Thompson in 2015 to look at provision of wheelchairs through the NHS “to develop best practice standards as well as introducing personal wheelchair budgets to give people more choice on the best wheelchair for them”.

During 2017-18 all CCGs in England are replacing the existing wheelchair voucher scheme with personal wheelchair budgets, in which people are told upfront how much money is available for their wheelchair, based on an assessment of their individual needs and goals. A new national data collection has also been established which, for the first time, aims to centrally gather information on the quality of wheelchair services across England, including waiting times.

“The national data collection is a massive step forward in terms of understanding the needs of wheelchair users and what equipment is, and can be, provided,” explains Grey-Thompson. “However, in reality, it’s going to take some time for the information to be universally gathered and useful across the whole of England. This should be of a high priority in order to be able to provide the right equipment.”

The issue of wheelchair provision is likely to become increasingly pressing. In addition to wider NHS funding pressures, other limited avenues for wheelchair funding are being massively cut, including Access to Work – a fund delivered through Jobcentre Plus that pays for practical support for disabled people at work – and the motability scheme, which people can be awarded if they qualify for the higher rate of personal independence payments.

In Wales, where Palmer lives, wheelchair provision is commissioned on behalf of the country’s health boards by the Welsh health specialised service committee. A Welsh government spokesman says: “The provision is based and provided on clinical need. We believe Wales makes available the widest specification range of wheelchairs to meet patients’ needs in the UK.”

This is little comfort back in Newport. Palmer’s crowdfunding page has so far raised £1,500 of her £5,000 target. She says she is “beyond touched” by the public helping her – some give a pound because it’s all they have – but the stress of the prolonged process is damaging her mental health. She has no way of knowing if she’ll reach her target for her wheelchair or what she’ll do if she can’t.

“I should be able to go to the NHS and get help,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to wait months [through crowdfunding] to see if someone cares.”

Need a wheelchair? Pay for it yourself

“I feel like a prisoner who every now and again is let out on day release,” Kelly Palmer, 38, says from her home in Newport, south Wales.

Palmer has Marfan Syndrome – a genetic condition that affects ligaments and organs – as well as fibromyalgia and needs a power wheelchair full-time. But when she approached her GP to apply for a chair after her health deteriorated, she was told she wasn’t eligible. Even though her disability means she can’t propel a manual wheelchair, she didn’t meet the threshold to qualify for a power chair. “There was no help,” she says. “It was just ‘goodbye’.”

As there’s no one else at home to help, for the last 18 months Palmer is largely stuck in the house and she only goes out once every three weeks or so, usually for hospital appointments and only if a friend can drive her there and stay to push the chair.

Desperate, Palmer has turned to the internet and launched a crowdfunding appeal online to try and raise the £5,000 she needs for a suitable power chair. She got the idea from some friends who had done the same to raise money for their own wheelchairs but says pride means she’s been “putting it off” as a last resort. “I didn’t want to have to beg,” she says. “But I didn’t have the choice.”

Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people. The most popular way of doing this is through a number of crowdfunding websites, such as Kickstarter and JustGiving, which allows people to raise money for their own personal cause, a person in need, clubs, schools and communities through online appeals.

Palmer is by no means an isolated case. As the country celebrates paralympians at the World Para Athletics Championships in London this month, growing numbers of disabled people are unable to get the wheelchair they need on the NHS and are being forced to turn to the public. The amount of money raised for wheelchairs on JustGiving increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, from £365,000 to £1.8m, according to exclusive figures seen by The Guardian. While some of that increase is likely to be down to better awareness of the site, it’s a trend that is continuing. From January to July 2017, there has been a 59% increase in donations to disabled people asking for help to fund a wheelchair compared with the same period last year.

“JustGiving is often where people come when they have nowhere else to turn,” explains Rhys Goode, public relations director at JustGiving. “It’s remarkable to see the increase in people having to crowdfund for new wheelchairs – an item that’s so essential to their quality of life.”

Disability charity Scope says it gets regular calls from disabled people experiencing difficulties with funding for wheelchairs. Jean Merrilees, a helpline adviser at Scope, says: “With wheelchairs sometimes costing in excess of £10,000 we need to see the funding pressures the NHS is facing addressed, so disabled people can access specialist equipment that supports independent living, rather than many continuing having to bear the brunt of these costs themselves.”

Whizz-Kidz, a charity that provides wheelchairs for young people, states that many disabled children are not being provided with a suitable chair by their local NHS wheelchair service.

Last month, medics at the British Medical Association’s (BMA) annual meeting unanimously passed a motion calling for wheelchair users to have “timely access to chairs suitable for their individual conditions”, after warnings that cuts in services, a postcode lottery of availability and delays means that disabled patients are increasingly struggling to get their wheelchairs on the NHS.

Hannah Barham-Brown, the junior doctor who triggered the motion at the BMA, had to turn to crowdfunding herself two years ago to buy her own chair. “When I tell people I had to crowdfund for a wheelchair, they are gobsmacked,” she says. Barham-Brown, 29, was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) in 2015 during medical school. “I kept dislocating my knees,” she says. Within six months, she needed a wheelchair. But after going to her GP, she was told NHS wheelchair services would only offer her a heavyweight basic wheelchair or a £140 voucher towards another. Neither option was viable: Barham-Brown’s condition means a manual chair would dislocate her joints when she tried to push herself along and a suitable wheelchair would cost upwards of £2,000, money she didn’t have.

Barham-Brown had what she described as a meltdown. “Without a chair, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this job I’d trained so hard for. I wouldn’t be able to be a doctor,” she says. In panic, a friend from medical school put up a crowdfunding page to ask the public for help. Within 24 hours, they’d raised £2,000 – enough for the wheelchair. It enabled Barham-Brown to continue her training in south London but she says it’s “mindblowing” that disabled adults and children are being forced to resort to asking strangers for help online.

“It’s the basic tenet of the NHS: you have a need and it’s met. But it isn’t,” she says. “People are housebound and trapped in their homes. Yet nothing is being done.”

Local GP-led clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are ultimately responsible for securing and funding wheelchair services. A spokesperson for NHS England says it is working with the National Wheelchair Leadership Alliance – a group set up by Paralympian and crossbench peer Tanni Grey Thompson in 2015 to look at provision of wheelchairs through the NHS “to develop best practice standards as well as introducing personal wheelchair budgets to give people more choice on the best wheelchair for them”.

During 2017-18 all CCGs in England are replacing the existing wheelchair voucher scheme with personal wheelchair budgets, in which people are told upfront how much money is available for their wheelchair, based on an assessment of their individual needs and goals. A new national data collection has also been established which, for the first time, aims to centrally gather information on the quality of wheelchair services across England, including waiting times.

“The national data collection is a massive step forward in terms of understanding the needs of wheelchair users and what equipment is, and can be, provided,” explains Grey-Thompson. “However, in reality, it’s going to take some time for the information to be universally gathered and useful across the whole of England. This should be of a high priority in order to be able to provide the right equipment.”

The issue of wheelchair provision is likely to become increasingly pressing. In addition to wider NHS funding pressures, other limited avenues for wheelchair funding are being massively cut, including Access to Work – a fund delivered through Jobcentre Plus that pays for practical support for disabled people at work – and the motability scheme, which people can be awarded if they qualify for the higher rate of personal independence payments.

In Wales, where Palmer lives, wheelchair provision is commissioned on behalf of the country’s health boards by the Welsh health specialised service committee. A Welsh government spokesman says: “The provision is based and provided on clinical need. We believe Wales makes available the widest specification range of wheelchairs to meet patients’ needs in the UK.”

This is little comfort back in Newport. Palmer’s crowdfunding page has so far raised £1,500 of her £5,000 target. She says she is “beyond touched” by the public helping her – some give a pound because it’s all they have – but the stress of the prolonged process is damaging her mental health. She has no way of knowing if she’ll reach her target for her wheelchair or what she’ll do if she can’t.

“I should be able to go to the NHS and get help,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to wait months [through crowdfunding] to see if someone cares.”

First double hand transplant involving a child declared a success

After almost 11 hours of surgery involving four teams of doctors, Zion Harvey had earned his place in medical history. The eight-year-old had become the first child in the world to receive two new hands in a procedure that seemed to herald a revolution in transplant medicine.

Two years on, the sports-mad boy from Baltimore, Maryland, is enjoying the freedom and independence his new hands have given him. In the first medical journal report of Zion’s pioneering treatment, published on Wednesday, the experts involved declare the operation a success and say other children could benefit from the knowledge gained.

Zion had to rely on others after he had his hands and feet amputated aged two when he contracted sepsis. For six years he used a combination of his residual limbs and specialist equipment to dress, wash himself and eat – until the double transplant changed his life.

“At 18 months [after the transplant], the child had exceeded his previous adaptive abilities. As of 18 months after transplantation surgery he is able to write and feed, toilet and dress himself more independently and efficiently than he could do before transplantation,” writes the team from the Children’s hospital of Philadelphia in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.

Organ transplantation is risky in that a recipient’s body may reject the new body part, while the drug regime involved carries a series of health risks. Two years on from the surgery he had in July 2015, Zion, now 10, is coping well with both.

Zion playing baseball


Zion playing baseball. Photograph: The Lancet/PA

“Cases like this demonstrate how new developments and innovation in science and transplantation have the potential to make enormous differences to the quality of life of patients,” said Lorna Marson, the president of the British Transplantation Society, which represents specialists working in the field across the NHS.

“Transplantation is a constantly evolving sector and it is heartening to hear the positive outcomes of groundbreaking transplants such as this one.”

More than 100 people worldwide have had a hand or arm transplant since the first adult received a new hand in 1998, closely followed by the first replacement of both hands in 2000. Many countries now conduct such transplants on small numbers of carefully selected patients.

In May 2000, a baby girl in Malaysia who was born with a severe congenital deformity became the first child to receive a new hand and arm, transplanted from her identical twin sister who died at birth.

Hand transplant graphic

In an update last year on his progress in the year since his surgery, Zion said: “The only thing that’s different is instead of no hands, I have two hands. I’m still the same kid everybody knew without hands.”

Referring to his new hands, he added: “Here’s the piece of my life that was missing. Now it’s here, my life is complete.”

Within eight months of the operation Zion was using scissors and crayons and after a year he was able to swing a baseball bat with both hands – once throwing the opening pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game.

Dr Scott Levin, team leader for Zion’s 10-hour surgery, has praised his young patient’s bravery. “I’ve never seen Zion cry. I’ve never seen him not want to do his therapy. He’s just such a remarkable human being, let alone child or adult. He has such courage and determination and gives us all inspiration,” he said.

But the last two years have been mentally and physically hard for Zion. He has had huge amounts of physiotherapy and occupational therapy to help him adjust, as well as counselling to aid his psychological recovery.

Zion after the transplant surgery in 2015


Zion after the transplant surgery in 2015. Photograph: Clem Murray/Rex Shutterstock

The doctors write: “Since his surgery he has undergone eight rejections of the hands, including serious episodes during the fourth and seventh months of his transplant. All of these were reversed with immunosuppression drugs without impacting the function of the child’s hands.”

He is still taking four different immunosuppressant drugs to maximise the chances of his body continuing to tolerate the pair of new hands, though doctors hope to reduce the dose.

“While functional outcomes are positive and the boy is benefitting from his transplant, this surgery has been very demanding for this child and his family,” said Dr Sandra Amaral, a member of the team at the Philadelphia hospital.

However, in an accompanying comment article, Dr Marco Lanzetta, an Italian expert in hand transplant surgery, doubts that many children could tolerate a similar procedure and highlights the risks from lifelong use of immunosuppressants. Zion’s case was exceptional as he was already on the drugs, after receiving a kidney from his mother, Pattie Ray.

Prosthetic hands and limbs, adds Lanzetta, have now developed so much that they, rather than transplant surgery, are more likely to prove the future for patients like Zion.

Stressful experiences can age brain ‘by years’, Alzheimer’s experts hear

Stressful life experiences can age the brain by several years, new research suggests. Experts led by a team from Wisconsin University’s school of medicine and public health in the US found that even one major stressful event early in life may have an impact on later brain health.

The team examined data for 1,320 people who reported stressful experiences over their lifetime and underwent tests in areas such as thinking and memory. The subjects’ average age was 58 and included 1,232 white Americans and 82 African Americans. A series of neuropsychological tests examined several areas, including four memory scores (immediate memory, verbal learning and memory, visual learning and memory, and story recall).

Stressful life experiences included things such as losing a job, the death of a child, divorce or growing up with a parent who abused alcohol or drugs. The results showed that a larger number of stressful events was linked to poorer cognitive function in later life.

When looking specifically at African Americans, the team found they experienced 60% more stressful events than white people during their lifetimes. Researchers said that, in African Americans, each stressful experience was equivalent to approximately four years of cognitive ageing.

The study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association international conference in London.

Dr Maria Carrillo, the chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “The stressful events that the researchers were focusing on were a large variety … the death of a parent, abuse, loss of a job, loss of a home … poverty, living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, divorce.” She said that even a change of school could be regarded as a stressful life event for some children.

Dr Doug Brown, the director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We know that prolonged stress can have an impact on our health, so it’s no surprise that this study indicates stressful life events may also affect our memory and thinking abilities later in life. However, it remains to be established whether these stressful life events can lead to an increased risk of dementia.

“Studying the role of stress is complex. It is hard to separate from other conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are also thought to contribute towards dementia risk.

“However, the findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events. As we improve our understanding of risk factors for dementia, it is increasingly important to establish the role that stress and stressful life events play.”

Other research has suggested there are plausible links between stress and chronic inflammation, which in turn may accelerate the development of dementia. But experts believe that a health lifestyle and a healthy diet can help mitigate this risk, even for those people going through stressful events.