Dementia rates among Torres Strait residents are up to three times higher than the general population, according to the first research of its kind to ever look at this group.

Edward Striven

Using a culturally specific tool, researchers from James Cook University assessed 276 people aged between 45 and 93 across all 18 island and mainland communities in the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Area of Far North Queensland.

Data was collected between May 2015 and February 2018.

Researcher Professor Eddy Strivens says he became aware of high levels of dementia while providing clinical services to Cape York and the Torres Strait over the last two decades.

“One of the things we noticed over that period was that we were seeing higher levels than we’d expect of dementia, but we had very little ways of actually diagnosing it and seeing what the issue was,” he told Community Care Review.

“So we validated a cognitive assessment tool which then allowed us to do a three year project to actually visit every single populated island and community in the Torres Strait.”

The data showed the prevalence of dementia in the sample was 14.2 per cent, which is 2.87 times higher than the wider Australian population.

Findings highlight the need for culturally appropriate models of care to address risk factors and for health professionals to actively promote healthy lifestyles across the lifespan to reduce dementia risk.

Prevalence of Dementia in the Torres Strait, Australasian Journal of Ageing

In the 60 to 69-year age group it was 4.4 times higher than the general population.

The research adds to previous studies showing a three-to-five times increased risk of dementia among Aboriginal Australians, Professor Strivens said.

 The increased risk of dementia in younger age groups in the study was consistent with other studies in Aboriginal communities, particularly the higher rate in those aged 60-69 years. 

Risk factors

Professor Striven says mid-life vascular risk, including diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke, is a common factor among both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island groups, with more than 96 per cent of people diagnosed with dementia in the current study having more than one vascular risk factor.

“We’re doing more work teasing out what those particular risk factors are,” he said.

Professor Striven (centre) and the Health Ageing research team from Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service.

The study, published in the current Australasian Journal of Ageing, says there’s a need to develop more culturally appropriate screening and interventions for dementia for Torres Strait and Aboriginal communities, as well as boosting the detection of dementia in primary health settings.

The researchers hope the results of their study can improve future planning and provision of care for people with dementia and their carers in these populations.

“The findings highlight the need for culturally appropriate models of care to address risk factors and for health professionals to actively promote healthy lifestyles across the lifespan to reduce dementia risk,” they conclude.

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