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Research closes in on link between dementia, eating disorders

Eating disorders are common in patients with certain types of dementia. The underlying reason for this has long been unclear but freshly published Australian research might just shed new light on this phenomenon.

“We know from studies that eating changes are common in frontotemporal dementia and present in up to 60 per cent of patients,” said Dr Rebekah Ahmed from Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). Frontotemporal dementia is the second most common form of the disease, often affecting people somewhat younger than Alzheimer's patients.

The unusual eating habits that frequently manifest in people with frontotemporal dementia can often be quite striking and have major effects on their day-to-day life.

“Patients can be quite rigid in what they eat," Ahmed explained. "For example, we have one patient who will only eat crackers and chocolate milk for breakfast. That’s all he will eat and refuses to eat anything else."

Quite apart from medical concerns, a sudden but persistent urge for sweet or fatty foods might also lead to various negative social and emotional consequences, especially when it comes to the families and carers of patients exhibiting these symptoms.

“The important thing to remember is that eating changes are common in frontotemporal dementia, and it’s good to let carers know about these changes, as often they will wonder what’s going on,” Ahmed said. “They are common and difficult to control, and do have an effect on insulin levels, cholesterol levels and body mass index.”

A study by Ahmed has provided some promising leads into determining what causes these behavioural changes. The findings suggest that abnormally high levels of protein play a key part in patients’ changed behaviour.

What does this mean for dementia patients and carers in the long run?

“The significance of these findings is that if we can discover what drives these eating changes, we may be able to try treatments that can modify how patients behave and how they eat, and this may affect how the disease progresses.”

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