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Joining the dots on dementia research – how fish oils, a healthy heart and a Sea Hero Quest can all help

Michael Hornberger can quote some very big numbers when it comes to dementia and the impact it is having on us both now and in the future.  Prof Hornberger is the Head of Department of Medicine and Professor of Applied Dementia Research at the Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia (UEA), as well as the Director of Aging Research in the Norfolk & Suffolk NHS Mental Health trust.   Recently, he spoke at a seminar in London which was streamed on Facebook Live where he revealed some startling statistics about the disease.  How about these for a start:

  1. There are 850,000 people living with dementia in this country
  2. By 2025 that will rise by 35%
  3. By 2050 it will increase by 146%
  4. Dealing with dementia costs the UK economy £26bn per year

“I always include those slides,” he says. “It’s a fine balance, but the scale really needs to be shown to people. The numbers bring the message home.”

The rising numbers are sure to put huge pressure on an NHS and social care system already feeling the strain. And yet, he notes, the amount of money spent researching dementia is a fraction of that spent on cancer research.  It’s a funding gap he believes will need to be addressed by policymakers in the coming decades.  “What can we really do about it right now, that’s what most people want to know?” he says. “As we know the NHS is stretched to its limits. Social care is all very much affected by the demand side.”

How a mobile game helped unlock research into dementia

Originally from Germany, Michael came to the UK to study for a PhD, and later worked in Sydney, Australia, before arriving at UEA in 2015.  And, talking about big numbers, last year he was instrumental in the launch of Sea Hero Quest, an innovative mobile game designed to help in our understanding of dementia, spatial awareness and how the brain works.

For many people living with dementia, one of the first effects they experience is a loss of spatial awareness, as they lose the ability to navigate their way through even well-known places and environments.

Working with telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom, Alzheimer’s Research, game developers Glitchers, and fellow researchers at University College London, the idea was to provide insights about how people navigate every day.  As players make their way through mazes of islands and icebergs, experts can translate every second of gameplay into scientific data. Every two minutes spent playing Sea Hero Quest is equal to five hours of lab based research. If 100,000 people play Sea Hero Quest for just two minutes, this will equate to 57 years’ worth of lab based research.  And in fact, the global response to the game has been phenomenal.  “We got 100,000 people in the first two days,” he says. “It just snowballed from there and became much larger, which was fantastic.  “It’s really amazing how you can mobilise people and there have been so many positive side effects such as getting younger people engaged.”

 If you want to try the Sea Hero Quest game click here

We need more Admiral Nurses

But beyond the technology, he believes  a more straight forward solution could lie in increasing funding for Admiral Nurses in this country, who can provide specialist support to families.  He also believes the UK could look to countries such as the Netherlands and Japan for lessons on how to deal with a rising elderly population.  “For dementia there are Admiral nurses, but not as many as we would wish,” he says. “The problem is the funding is very low.

“What we need are specialist nurses who know about dementia. This is what carers and families ask us for – one central person who knows about this. Macmillan Nurses have made a huge difference for cancer patients.  “But funding is different across the regions, and if there is no money in the system how are we going to create a network like that? But we think in the long term we will save millions in NHS costs.

Why we could learn from the Dutch and Japanese

“Holland is known in Europe to be one of the leading countries for dementia. They have linked up the whole network. They have a system in place where people receive a diagnosis and gets one central person who follows them through the whole disease. This person can provide all the background information.  “Japan has had an ageing population for a much longer time and the services they have put in place are really fantastic.  “The problem in this country is that it’s quite fragmented.”

One area where he is keen to join the dots is among the academics, clinicians and researchers.  Within the UEA and broader Norwich Research Park itself, there is a lot of work being done on how to treat and manage the disease – including studies led by the John Innes Centre, and the Earlham Institute about how Omega 3 flavanoids can help reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as separate research on other lifestyle changes such as improving cardiovascular health.

“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” he says. “Lifestyle changes, particularly around cardiovascular health can reduce the risk of dementia.”  On a practical level Prof Hornberger has been at the heart of the UEA Dementia Research Collaborative, a group of researchers, educators and clinicians which meets every other month and is interested in dementia research, collaboration, and spreading the word to the public about the latest thinking surrounding the disease.

“It’s really coalescing all the dementia research that’s happening across the university and the research park, just to get people talking to each other. Sometimes people are working on the same thing and don’t know.”

How staying healthy can help reduce dementia symptoms

But he said it was important to recognise that dementia is a disease and not part of the normal ageing process.  “We are doing a lot more with carers – if you can support them then the patients can have a better quality of life and stay out of hospital.  “I always say that you have to look after yourself if you want to look after someone else. If the carers are looked after well and have a large social network, then the patient is much better off and goes to hospital less.

“I think within five to 10 years we will have a treatment which will at least slow down the disease. Nobody is talking about a cure. Identifying people earlier will be even more important.”

For details on the UEA Dementia Research Collaborative click here –

Go to our section on Dementia and Alzheimer’s for lots more information and support.   Or read some of our stories in the blogs section.