Meet the dementia researcher working to reduce the risk of this devastating disease
- Credit: UEA
One in three of us will develop dementia in our lifetime – but can we prevent it? Dr Michael Hornberger, Professor of Applied Dementia Research at the UEA’s Norwich Medical School on Norwich Research Park, discusses how the right lifestyle choices can reduce our risk of dementia by up to 40pc.
Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.
What does your role entail?
I'm a neuroscientist working to discover more about why people have dementia or are at risk of developing the disease. I also teach students about how dementia affects the brain.
In addition, I am investigating cardiometabolic health and how cardiovascular diseases like diabetes and obesity increase risk for dementia with age at the Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing (NIHA). My team at Norwich Medical School and the NIHA are focusing on how to motivate people to change their behaviours to reduce their risk of dementia.
You’ve written a new book about dementia, what can you tell us about it?
My book, Tangled Up: The Science and History of Alzheimer’s Disease, explores what happens in the brain during the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, which is a specific kind of dementia. The history of Alzheimer’s disease is fascinating because it's one of the few diseases where we actually know not only the doctor who discovered it, but the first person diagnosed with the disease.
Dr Alois Alzheimer was a German psychiatrist who was interested in microscopy. He had a patient called Mrs Auguste Deter who had symptoms including memory problems and disorientation. After she died, he investigated her brain and discovered the trademark features of Alzheimer's disease, including two proteins: amyloid and tau. When amyloid and tau clump together and accumulate, they become toxic to nerve cells. As these cells die, symptoms develop because the brain can no longer function.
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How can we reduce our risk of dementia?
First, we must make the distinction between modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors – those we can change and those we can’t. Age is our biggest non-modifiable risk factor. The older we become, the higher our risk of dementia, but we can’t stop ourselves ageing! However, the good news is that there are many modifiable risk factors including physical activity, nutrition and brain health.
We live in a sedentary society and obesity dramatically increases risk for dementia. It is vital to keep active to maintain good cardiovascular health. You can also maintain cognitive health by learning something new. And, if you can do it in a social environment, this is a really great way to keep your brain healthy.
People are often worried that they will inherit dementia, but the genetic risk is extremely low. Instead, people should focus on lifestyle. With healthy lifestyle changes, we can reduce our risk of dementia by 30-40pc. It’s never too late to change – and it’s never early enough!
Why did you decide to pursue a career in science?
I was one of those pesky kids that always asked: “Why?”. I was an absolute pain to my mother, who bought me a lot of science books. I read the entire science section of the local library in my home town of St. Ingbert in Germany. Over time I became interested in how the brain works and discovered that I love working with older people. They have a wonderful perspective on life.
What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?
It’s very collaborative. I have worked with some incredible people from completely different areas including neurology, radiology and the Ear, Nose and Throat department at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH).
I have also worked with the gynaecology department on how the menopause affects women's cognition and risk of dementia, as well as the Quadram Institute on the gut-brain axis and how this affects ageing and dementia. With such amazing expertise on our doorstep, I’m trying to make the most of those opportunities.
What do you get up to when you are not at work?
I love cycling and participate in long-distance riding events to raise money for dementia charities. I have played the violin since I was five years old, although I don't practice as much these days so now it’s more like fiddling! But my family always hosts a Christmas concert, so I need to start practising for that.
When I first visited Norwich, I was shocked at how underestimated it is. Norfolk really is a fantastic place and the Broads are amazing. Norfolk also has one of the oldest populations in the country, which is important for my research. Though I was born in Germany, I love to watch Norwich City FC and have supported them for six years now.
Dr Michael Hornberger is Professor of Applied Dementia Research at the Norwich Medical School on Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @m_hornberger