Summer is well and truly upon us. The heat of the July sun contrasts strongly with the same sunshine on a winter’s day. As the Earth tilts slightly towards the sun this tiny movement increases the sun’s power and we feel the difference. The margins are so small – if the Earth were only in a slightly different plane of space life might never have got going.
For the ancient civilisations this natural phenomena of the seasonal fluctuations warranted an explanation. Lacking the insights we have today, people found the answers in myths of gods – myths that were layered and developed over millennia, developing and changing shape as the civilisations themselves waxed and waned.
We know that between 1425 and 1200 BC, on the island of Crete there were a people that we now call Mycenaean. Archaeologists have discovered clay tablets with scratchings on them that turn out to be a development of an earlier Minoan language, known as Linear B. From these tablets it is possible to make out the first appearance of a goddess who would later be named Demeter by Homer.
Demeter was the goddess of the harvest, who presided over the grains and the fertility of the Earth and from Homer we have the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, who was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched for her beloved daughter ceaselessly, preoccupied with her loss and grief. While she searched, the seasons halted and living things stopped growing and then began to die. In time Zeus intervened and Persephone was returned to her mother, but only after she had eaten pomegranate seeds given to her by Hades. Having done so, Persephone was bound to Hades and must return to him for one third of the year – during which time nothing will grow – winter in other words.
Dementia is a Latin word derived from the word root mens or mind and de which means removal or separation – so dementia becomes ‘removal or separation of the mind’. The term was first used in 1861 to describe the symptoms of what we now know as dementia. Language just like mythology is layered and also changes shape and meaning over time as do memories. Is there an echo of Demeter in the word dementia? I don’t know, but there’s something about poor Demeter frantically searching for her lost daughter and forgetting to undertake her duties that resonates with me.
It certainly did last week when we launched our Three Year Dementia Care plan. At its heart it has three themes: prevent, delay and cope. There is no cure for dementia and the number of people with dementia is set to rise. Currently there are thought to be 45,000 people with the disease in Wales, and in our population the number of affected people is set to increase by 60% over the next 25 years.
We have worked together with people with dementia, their carers and the professionals who have expertise in this field to develop our plan. Clearly prevention and delay have to be key cards that we play in our battle with this disease.
Interestingly the prevention component of our plan draws on evidence that is locally derived. The Caerphilly Cohort Study led by Professor Peter Elwood OBE from the School of Medicine at Cardiff University, monitored the health habits of 2,235 men over a 35-year period. It found that five behaviours are integral to having the best chance of a disease free life: taking regular exercise, a healthy body weight, a healthy diet and a low alcohol intake.
The people who consistently followed four or five of these behaviours experienced a 60% decline in dementia and cognitive decline – with exercise being the strongest mitigating factor – as well as 70% fewer instances of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, compared with people who followed none.
So let’s all enjoy the sunshine then and also make an effort to take some exercise. It might be easier to do so now while the days are long and warm, rather than when they shorten and the cold sets in. The evidence is clear that we can lay down the foundation of a healthier and more fulfilling older age for ourselves and those around us by taking a few steps now to modify our behaviour.