Optimising social health to defeat dementia

Optimising social health to defeat dementia
Optimising social health to defeat dementia

HEIDI DOUGLASS | h.douglass@unsw.edu.au

A first-ever national study will investigate the societal and environmental factors that lay the path for health issues including dementia, with a focus on Australia.

To prevent future cases of dementia we need to understand who is at risk and what are the risk factors. According to researchers at UNSW’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA), the people with whom we interact and the environments in which we live, work and play are critical to our health. 

The new research, led by internationally renowned experts Professors Perminder Sachdev and Henry Brodaty, has a vision to assess and address social determinants of health in ageing and dementia to improve health outcomes and quality of life in the older population, and deal with inequity in brain health. 

Social determinants of health are the non-medical factors that influence our health outcomes, and their influence on healthy ageing is increasingly recognised. They are the conditions in the environments in which we are all born, live, learn and work, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of our daily lives. These determinants of health are shaped by social policies, economics and politics, and contribute to inequities and health disparities. 

The evidence for the various social determinants of dementia is still in its infancy. Very few studies have examined this in the Australian context, with its rich ethnic diversity, socioeconomic differences and urban-rural spread.

By delving into the determinants of healthy ageing, such as lifestyle choices, and socio-economic factors and how these interact with our genes, researchers can identify modifiable factors that may reduce dementia risk. Armed with this knowledge, tailored interventions and preventative measures can be designed to target specific risk factors and promote cognitive well-being as individuals age.

Dementia has a profound impact on Australians, both individually and as a society. With a growing ageing population, dementia presents a significant healthcare and social challenge. It affects not only the individuals diagnosed but also their families, caregivers, and communities, with approximately 1.5 million Australians currently caring for a person living with dementia.

The healthcare system faces enormous strain due to the specialised care required for dementia patients, while families grapple with the financial and emotional burdens of providing proper support.

Project leader Associate Professor Simone Reppermund says that the new project “will allow us to identify whether certain individuals or communities are at higher risk of developing dementia as a result of societal factors such as socioeconomic position and access to health and education.”

Social health expert and researcher on the project Dr Suraj Samtani said that their social determinants index will also leverage AI technology to enable the detection of those at risk of developing dementia.

Our intention is to develop tailored interventions for high-risk individuals so that people can re-engage in activities which they enjoy in a sustainable manner. 
Dr Suraj Samtani

Under this new research group, CHeBA will conduct a systematic review of social determinants for dementia and ageing, develop interventions for loneliness and social isolation in older people, and create a data linkage project of the social determinants of dementia in Australia through the National Integrated Health Services Information (NIHSI).

“We will provide social prescribing guidelines for health practitioners to replace the void of information available to them,” says Dr Samtani.

The researchers will also produce policy papers to influence health systems in Australia to consider the societal factors that impact on dementia risk and specify steps to address these issues at multiple levels of society.

“This project will shift the blame from individuals and bring to light societal factors that heighten our risk of dementia,” says Dr Samtani.

It will go beyond identification and be solution focused, providing novel interventions that can be scaled up for the ageing Australian population.
Dr Suraj Samtani

CHeBA's research on the connection between social and cognitive health has been referenced in a report by the US Surgeon-General and covered by the New York Times. The Centre’s researchers have contributed to understanding social health in dementia by clarifying terms and providing a framework. They have shown how social health relates to dementia, depression, and mortality using data from 13 countries. Their research has also confirmed links between lower education and dementia vulnerability.

The 5-year project is generously funded by the Kennards Hire Foundation. 

Communications Contact

Communications contact: Heidi Douglass, Communications and Projects OffierHeidi Douglass
Team Lead – Innovations & Communications
T 0435 579 202
E h.douglass@unsw.edu.au