Article of the month: March 2021

Horstkötter, D., Deckers, K., & Köhler, S. (2021). Primary Prevention of Dementia: An Ethical Review. J Alzheimers Dis, 79(2), 467-476. doi: 10.3233/jad-201104

Dementia poses important medical and societal challenges, and of all health risks people face in life, dementia is one of the most feared. Recent research indicates that up to about 40% of all cases of dementia might be preventable. A series of environmental, social, and medical risk-factors have been identified that should be targeted from midlife onwards when people are still cognitively healthy. At first glance, this seems not merely advisable, but even imperative. However, these new developments trigger a series of new ethical questions and concerns which have hardly been addressed to date. Pro-active ethical reflection, however, is crucial to ensure that the interests and well-being of those affected, ultimately all of us, are adequately respected. This is the goal of the current contribution. Against the background of a concrete case in primary dementia prevention, it provides a systematic overview of the current ethical literature and sketches an ethical research agenda. First, possible benefits of increased well-being must be balanced with the burdens of being engaged in particularly long-term interventions for which it is unclear whether they will ever pay out on a personal level. Second, while knowledge about one’s options to maintain brain health might empower people, it might also undermine autonomy, put high social pressure on people, medicalize healthy adults, and stigmatize those who still develop dementia. Third, while synergistic effects might occur, the ideals of dementia prevention might also conflict with other health and non-health related values people hold in life.