Dementia and other degenerative diseases of the brain and nervous system, such as Parkinson’s disease and motor neuron disease, are common and serious health problems of middle and old age.  These conditions often come on slowly over many years before they are diagnosed, and this can make it difficult to study lifestyle factors which may be linked to their development – people may take more or less exercise, or lose or gain weight, because they are already developing a disease rather than because this causes the disease. We have started a programme of research, funded largely by the Medical Research Council, taking advantage of the detailed lifestyle information and complete, long-term follow-up available in the large Million Women Study cohort to help answer some outstanding questions about lifestyle and risk of neurodegenerative disease.  

Our first published results (Doyle et al, 2012) showed that risk of motor neuron disease was somewhat greater in smokers (as had previously been suggested) and was lower in women who were overweight or obese compared with lean women. Many other factors, including hormone use, alcohol drinking and socioeconomic status, were not related to motor neuron disease risk. We are now studying in detail how a range of factors, including smoking, alcohol, overweight and obesity, and physical exercise may relate to the risk of developing dementia and Parkinson’s disease over many years.  We hope that this work will provide reliable evidence to improve our understanding of these diseases, and to guide public health policy on prevention. Our work on dementia is part of a UK-wide research collaboration, the Dementias Platform UK.

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