Will masala chai cause dementia? This university wants to find out

Will masala chai cause dementia? This university wants to find out
Questions remain whether masala chai will cause diabetes, leading to Alzheimer's Disease. Source: Shutterstock

What do Malaysia, Tanzania and India have in common?

As it turns out, it’s little or no research on dementia, a condition that impairs the ability of around 47 million people worldwide to process thought, affecting their memory, comprehension, language and judgment.

This means citizens are not fully benefiting from the knowledge of potential measures to avoid the disease.

Questions such as “Will this teh tarik or masala chai cause me to get diabetes, increasing my chances to get Alzheimer’s Disease?” or “Will hiking up Kilimanjaro keep my nerve cells healthier for longer?” remain unanswered.

In some cases, whether questions like these are even being asked within the research communities there is not known.

But one university is planning to find out more: Newcastle University.

Armed with a RM10 million (US$2.34 million) research grant by the UK government, the school plans to establish a global healthcare unit to tackle dementia by 2020.

With teams in UK and Malaysia, the project will investigate current social, policy and service set-ups for people with dementia in these three countries, chosen for their respective economic statuses, level of healthcare and availability of research funding.

“The group really wanted to get a global picture,” says Prof Roger Barton, CEO and provost of Newcastle’s Malaysian outpost, Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed) in an interview with Study International News.

Professor Roger Barton. Source: NUMed

Malaysia, India and Tanzania will provide a snapshot of the extent of dementia for other higher middle-income, middle-income and low-income countries respectively.

Led by Prof Louise Robinson from Newcastle’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing, the project will also partner with government officials and universities such as King’s College London, Monash University Malaysia and University of Malaya as well as civil society organisations identified in each country.

For example, in India, non-profit health research organisation Health Action by People (HAP) and their academics at medical colleges in Kerala will provide their expertise in population study and Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common cause of dementia comprising 60-70 percent of cases, according to World Health Organisation’s (WHO) data.

Whereas in Tanzania, Newcastle will leverage on links with the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre for its know-how on health beliefs and stigma – how people may or may not participate in action and strategies to prevent and care for dementia – as well as its expertise in neurological imaging to look at brains damaged by the syndrome via CT and MRI scans.

It’s a monumental task ahead for Newcastle, a fact Prof Barton doesn’t try to hide. He understands local bureaucracy, communication and healthcare agencies’ reluctance to adopt proposals are foreseeable obstacles in their task.

And like all research, the fruits of this project will be hard to quantify – results won’t be seen until years or decades later. But the existence of a project like this should come as good news to these countries for several reasons. For one, Malaysia has one of the highest rates of diabetes, smoking and obesity – all of which are lifestyle related risk factors that could benefit from deeper knowledge on how they are related to cognitive impairment.

Adding to that mix the age factor, which is the biggest risk its citizens face – the outlook isn’t too rosy.

“With age being the biggest risk factor, Malaysia’s ageing population will likely see an increase in dementia, so it is important for us to understand it more and the issues that surround it,” he said.

In Tanzania, there are only four doctors specialising in neurology – a figure far behind the more developed countries and placing an extreme burden on its already understaffed healthcare system. The country only has just 5.2 clinical health workers per 10,000 people, one-fifth of the optimal ratio recommended by the World Health Organisation.

But Prof Barton remains optimistic by 2020, there will be tangible results for the university and countries to continue its good work.

“We will hope by then we will be in a stronger position.”

Until then, Prof Barton has these words of advice for us: “Remain physically active, don’t become overweight, don’t smoke and keep using your mind.”

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