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Illustration of a medical doctor standing next to a heart.

One of the biggest policy challenges posed by our ageing population is preventing age-related diseases.  Alzheimer’s and other dementias are forecast to affect over 130 million people around the world by 2050, but despite intensive research efforts, there are still no cures, no treatments other than symptomatic relief, and no new drugs licensed in the UK since 2003. 

“Dementia has a devastating personal, social and economic impact. It’s vital that we use evidence to inform prevention strategies,” says Prof Sana Suri, who leads WIN’s Heart and Brain Group and chairs the centre’s Patient and Public Involvement group. Sana has shared her expertise with parliamentarians on numerous occasions, and gave testimony at the House of Lords inquiry into the government’s healthy ageing policy. 

One reason for the limited progress, is that the vast majority of clinical trials have targeted a single hallmark of the disease in its later stages: the build-up of amyloid protein plaques in the brain.  By contrast, Sana’s research recognises the complex and interacting biological mechanisms and risk factors linked with the development of Alzheimer’s, often decades before symptoms appear.  The team uses brain scans to investigate the heart-brain link, and how heart and vascular health and modifiable cardiovascular risk factors, including obesity, hypertension and physical inactivity, affect memory and thinking in later life. 

Using population data, the group is also exploring whether we can predict who is most likely to develop dementia. “My long-term vision is for our work to guide clinical and policy decisions on personalised, lifestyle-based dementia prevention,” says Sana, who developed her communication skills by taking part in science policy programmes run by the Royal Society.

She is also involved with the Lifebrain project, an international research collaboration that seeks to pinpoint the biological and environmental factors that determine brain health throughout our lives; how thinking skills and mental health can be enhanced as we age; and how to communicate this evidence to the public.

“Science and policy speak very different languages, but it’s important that we find ways to work together to find new ways to preserve brain health and new solutions to this increasingly-common disease.”