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Forget it, that’s the route to dementia

Forgetting that oh-so-familiar name or misplacing those keys yet again; misplacing files in office or forgetting to attend a vital meeting — when these common misses start outnumbering the hits, you’ve hit a slippery slope. And this is much more than a laughing matter or a minor irritant — it’s a danger signal.

Two studies — one funded by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and the other by pharma majors — have revealed that poor nutrition and genetic factors are resulting in Calcuttans over 50 falling easy prey to dementia, a neuro-degenerative disease leading to acute memory failure and waning of intellectual abilities.

Researchers, comprising neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists, have been on a door-to-door campaign for several months to trace “forgetful” Calcuttans. Findings so far have revealed over 25,000 citizens suffering from dementia.

Results of a sample study initiated and completed by independent funding agencies in two municipal wards, in New Ballygunge, Tiljala and Picnic Garden have shown over 10,000 people over the age of 50 suffering from dementia. Another study on a much larger scale, at the behest of the central government, has thrown up similar figures. “In both studies, we have found the presence of poor nutrition as well as certain genetic and hereditary factors among victims. The revelations are definitely disconcerting,” says neurologist Tapas Banerjee, who, along with psychiatrist Chandra Sekhar Mukherjee, is associated with both studies.

Several cases were referred to the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, where scientists found the presence of a certain gene — APOe-4 — among the victims. “Like other genes, APOe-4 has a connection with the brain function and it is likely to have had a degenerative influence on the victims. This finding could prove to be a major breakthrough in our effort to find out the exact reason behind the outbreak of dementia, which is still shrouded in mystery,” says Banerjee.

The institute will now carry out a more comprehensive study to examine the probable genetic factors responsible for dementia among Calcuttans. During their study, researchers found poor eating habits — like consumption of rotten meat — causing dementia among several patients in New Ballygunge. “A certain virus called prion attacks the memory cells and slowly results in acute memory loss,” says Mukherjee.

According to experts, dementia occurs after the hippocampus region of the brain, associated with recent memory, is affected by proteins. Later, the memory circuit in the brain is completely destroyed, causing the loss of intellectual ability and forgetfulness (see box). Diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are known to be contributory factors for dementia.

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