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Helping the minds of Indigenous Australians age well

Aboriginal Health & Ageing Group, Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA)
Photo credit: Katrina Usman, NeuRA

Dr Kylie Radford

University of New South Wales | 2016 | $611,018

Indigenous Australians are three to four times more likely to develop dementia. That is higher than any other population in the world.1

Dementia is just one of the many chronic and complex conditions Indigenous Australians are affected by at higher rates and earlier in life compared with other Australians. Very little is known about the specific affects, the reasons for the higher rates, and best models of care.

Working to understand and recognise this complex problem is Dr Kylie Radford, a clinical neuro-psychologist at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and a dementia research fellow with the NHMRC and the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Part of her research has shown a strong link between dementia and childhood trauma.

‘We found that about 25 per cent of Aboriginal Australians had experienced high rates of childhood trauma compared with about 10 per cent in the broader community.  And those who had experienced high rates of childhood trauma were almost three times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia (especially Alzheimer’s disease) than others,’ Dr Radford said.

‘I hope that the main take away from this research will be recognition of this possible risk factor for dementia as part of the picture.

‘Groups such as the Healing Foundation need to be recognised and supported as critical in working with Indigenous communities to provide culturally appropriate treatment,’ she added.

Early life stress has also been linked with many other life-course health problems, such as depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

‘Prevention and treatment of early life stress might be one of the most effective ways of closing the life expectancy gap,’ Dr Radford said.

This research is part of a longitudinal study—Koori Growing Old Well Study— led by Professor Tony Broe, exploring healthy ageing and memory, as well as the rates of age-related disease like dementia in urban Aboriginal populations in New South Wales.

Dr Radford and the team at NeuRA are also conducting qualitative research with Elders into definitions of healthy ageing, the needs and preferences for services, and best support methods for healthy and active ageing.

‘We hope to develop a program that will promote wellbeing and increase physical activity for better brain health as people age,’ Dr Radford explained.

As part of the Boosting Dementia Research Initiative, NHMRC launched a joint fellowship with the Australian Research Council (ARC) to support the best emerging dementia researchers, such as Dr Radford, and attract scientists into dementia research.

‘The focus of the NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Development Fellowship has been to understand the major risk factors for dementia and cognitive decline in Indigenous populations and work towards strategies for dementia prevention and promote healthy brain ageing,’ Dr Radford said.

Fellows are also an integral part of the NHMRC National Institute for Dementia Research (NHMRC Dementia Institute), contributing to the Institute’s goals to expand dementia research in Australia, ensure better integration with international research and form a focus for rapid translation of evidence into policy and practice.

NHMRC Dementia Institute is a key element of the Australian Government’s $200 million initiative to boost dementia research. It targets, coordinates and translates the strategic expansion of dementia research in Australia.

‘I would hope that I’m making a contribution to improve the health and wellbeing of older Aboriginal people. I also find the work really rewarding. The opportunity to go and meet a lot of Elders in the community—sit down with them and hear their stories,’ Dr Radford said.

‘I’m continually blown away by the history of the older people I work with. The amazing things they‘ve done, what they’ve overcome and achieved against the odds. Everyone has a wonderful story to tell and it’s a real privilege to be part of that.’


1 Kylie Radford, Holly A. Mack, Brian Draper, Simon Chalkley, Gail Daylight, Robert Cumming, Hayley Bennett, Kim Delbaere, Gerald A. Broe, Prevalence of dementia in urban and regional Aboriginal Australians, In Alzheimer's & Dementia, Volume 11, Issue 3, 2015, Pages 271-279, ISSN 1552-5260, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2014.03.007