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Cognitive health begins at conception: addressing dementia as a lifelong and preventable condition

Jennifer H Barnett12*, Vladimir Hachinski3 and Andrew D Blackwell12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Cambridge, CB2 2QQ, UK

2 Cambridge Cognition Ltd, Tunbridge Court, Tunbridge Lane, Bottisham, CB25 9TU, UK

3 Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences, London Health Sciences Centre, University of Western Ontario, University Hospital, 339 Windermere Road, London, Ontario, N6A 5A5, Canada

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BMC Medicine 2013, 11:246  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-246

Published: 19 November 2013



Dementia is a major public health problem that poses an increasing burden on the health and wealth of societies worldwide. Because the efficacy of current treatments is limited, increasing efforts are required to prevent the diseases that cause dementia.


We consider the evidence that lifelong prevention strategies may be an effective way to tackle the national burden of dementia in the absence of a cure. The links between lifestyle and cardiovascular disease are widely understood and accepted, but health professionals and patients remain unconvinced about the extent to which risk for dementia can be modified. However, there is strong evidence that at least half of risk for dementia is attributable to lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and smoking. Moreover, the disease processes that result in dementia develop over several decades, implying that attempts to ameliorate them need to start early in life. Some modifiable risk factors for dementia act from the earliest stages of life, including in utero.


Rebalancing efforts from the development of treatments to increased emphasis on prevention may be an alternative means to reducing the impact of dementia on society.

Dementia; Alzheimer’s disease; Prevention; Epidemiology