There is good news in the world, believe it or not

Amid gloomy reports on Beirut and coronavirus, there are reasons to be happy

Dr Alois Alzheimer first identified the condition in 1906, yet there is still no effective treatment for dementia, although a few drugs can sometimes keep the condition at bay temporarily in some people. Getty Images
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It may surprise you but there is some good news in what follows, even if, like so much of our world right now, it begins with something not so cheerful.

A friend, a news-junkie, tells me that recently she cannot bear to switch the news on TV or look at a newspaper. “Is there no good news?” she wondered. “Anywhere?”

Another friend said that normally she wakes up at 7am to the radio news but has switched to a music-only channel because she “just cannot bear” hearing any more about coronavirus, US President Donald Trump and foreign conflicts about which she can do nothing.

News fatigue affects us all, including those of us in the news business. The unimaginable, unforeseen horror of the Beirut explosions last week suggests a world out of our control.

Watching from afar those reporters in Lebanon telling the world about the tragedy, it struck me that what news reporters do is not just a piece of professional work, it is often a piece of their hearts.

Behind those news reports from that great city we heard reporters who themselves are citizens, brothers, sisters, friends, of those whose lives have been shattered, and who personally are deeply affected, but who weep off-camera.

In a much smaller way, the past few days had a touch of personal sadness for me too. We saw the passing of one of the few human beings I have ever met who I believe unreservedly requires the term "a great man" – the Irish politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume.

Hume really was Ireland's Nelson Mandela. He stood like a rock for fairness and peace, and against bigotry and violence. He sat down with the gunmen of the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary organisation that sought to end British rule in Northern Ireland. He persuaded them to change – and they did. He was welcomed in the White House, the European Parliament and in the homes of the ordinary people of Derry, the Northern Irish city where he had his roots.

Hume befriended me and helped me endlessly when I was a young reporter during the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland commonly known as "The Troubles". He put me right countless times. He made the world a better place.

Hume died with dementia. It is a terrible curse, not just for those directly affected, but also for their families. When former US president Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, his wife Nancy described it as "the long, long goodbye". She added that "when you come right down to it, you're in it alone and there's nothing that anybody can do for you. So it's lonely".

But in all that sadness, that is where the good news comes in: dementia rates are falling all around the world.

A Harvard University study published in the journal Neurology says that dementia rates dropped 13 per cent each decade for the past 27 years. In Britain, the likelihood of a man dying with dementia fell by almost a quarter, 22 per cent, in a decade. The study involved 50,000 people in Europe and the US, although there could be implications for people around the world and, as usual, further studies are needed.

The rate of decline in dementia in women is not so clear, but researchers believe lifestyle changes may provide the key. Healthier lifestyles – including giving up smoking, and many more at-risk older people taking a class of drugs called statins – mean reductions in cardio-vascular disease, such as strokes and heart attacks. There may also be a link between better heart health and lower dementia rates.

Other researchers speculate that better-educated populations and more stimulating lives for older people could reduce cognitive impairment. Gill Livingston, a researcher in University College London, suggests that even encouraging the use of hearing aids might help elderly people with hearing loss by preventing them from withdrawing from conversations and other activities that stimulate the brain.

WARRINGTON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 6:  Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a construction site, on August 6, 2020 in Warrington, United Kingdom. The Prime Minister is announcing what are described as 'once in a generation' planning reforms in a bid to accelerate the construction of new homes. (Photo by Phil Noble - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems to be leading by example. Getty Images
Despite so much gloomy news, in the words of the 17th century English theologian Thomas Fuller, perhaps 'the darkest hour is just before the dawn'

One other bit of good news – well, possibly – caught my eye this week. The British government, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson leading the charge, is suggesting that we all get fitter and lose some weight, since so many are obese.

Unfortunately it is – as usual with Mr Johnson – a confusing message, since it comes as his government is offering cheaper meal deals to those eating out, including in fast food restaurants, in the hope of boosting the economy rather than trimming waistlines. But despite so much gloomy news, in the words of the 17th century English theologian Thomas Fuller, perhaps “the darkest hour is just before the dawn".

When during the 1990s many in Northern Ireland accepted terrorism as a fact of life, Hume believed in the dawn. He never ceased in his efforts for peace. Perhaps Covid-19 will encourage us all to improve our health. And while it may be difficult to imagine anything good coming from Beirut’s darkest hour, if Hume were alive, he would encourage us to help the people of Lebanon and to change its dismally corrupt politics.

For my friends who find the daily news so grim – I do too. But among it all, there are always reasons to hope. Losing hope is the worst news of all.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter