September is World Alzheimer’s Month. This year’s theme is Know Dementia, Know Alzheimer’s, and is all about sharing knowledge. In this post, we will cover the basics of dementia, as well as early warning signs and the importance of a timely diagnosis.
Dementia is the leading cause of disability and dependence among the elderly. There are an estimated 50 million people worldwide living with dementia. A majority of healthcare workers think that dementia is simply part of ageing (and they are wrong for thinking so).
Yet despite the prevalence of dementia and the collective anxiety its possibility causes us, why don’t we talk about it more?
There are many misconceptions and stigmas around dementia, and our community is no exception. In the coming paragraphs, we will break down exactly what dementia is and address some common misconceptions together.
What Is Dementia?
To define dementia, we are actually going to address one of the most common misconceptions of all.
Dementia is actually an umbrella term for a whole range of brain disorders affecting memory, thinking, behavior, and emotion. Alzheimer’s, which many incorrectly assume to be the same, is actually the most common form of dementia. Other common types include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and fronto-temporal dementia.
The symptoms of each show up in different ways, depending on the type of dementia, the part of the brain affected, and the progression of the condition. However, common early symptoms typically include:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty in finding the right words or understanding what people are saying
- Difficulty in performing previously routine tasks
- Personality and mood changes
We incorrectly assume all of these to simply be inevitabilities of ageing. It’s because of this assumption that we may not notice symptoms early.
Symptoms of Dementia
It is extremely important to recognize the symptoms of dementia as early as possible. Early diagnosis allows time to develop a treatment plan, find the right support, and simply understand what is happening.
This is why we should be knowledgeable about the common symptoms of dementia. Exact symptoms can vary from person to person and by type of dementia, but there are some commonalities across them all. These are especially common in early stages.
In early stages, short-term memory is more strongly affected. This is different from normal forgetfulness. Anyone can simply blank on their neighbor’s or coworker’s name, but they still remember how they know that person. A person with dementia may entirely forget the context and not even remember that this person is their neighbor.
Older memories may still be preserved.
Difficulty Performing Regular Tasks
People with dementia may begin to have difficulty with tasks that were once so routine they didn’t even have to think about them. For example, one may forget what order to put on clothes or the steps in preparing a meal.
Disorientation in Time and Place
This is different from how we may normally just get days of the week mixed up. People with dementia may get lost in familiar places, such as the street they live on, and not remember how to get back home.
Poor, Decreased, or Changed Judgement
It is common to see people with dementia display poorer judgement than normal, often about simple things. For example, someone may put on more clothes than necessary on a warm day, or not enough on a cold day.
Withdrawal From Social Activities or Work
A person with dementia may start to become much more passive. This can mean watching TV for hours, sleeping more than usual, or seeming to lose interest in hobbies.
If you think you notice a combination of these symptoms in yourself or a friend or relative, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor and talk it over. Early recognition of dementia symptoms can make a world of difference in quality of life in the coming years.
Risk factors are things that appear to have an influence on the development of a given disease or condition. There are some risk factors for dementia that are unavoidable, such as ageing. However, we are not going to focus on the unavoidable ones, and instead discuss what we can influence.
There are many risk factors for dementia that we can address with lifestyle adjustments. Here’s the good news — many of these lifestyle adjustments are the same as the ones for preventing diabetes and hypertension. Healthy habits pay dividends for life!
Some common risk factors for dementia include:
- Physical inactivity
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Obesity, especially in mid-life
Furthermore, a common risk factor that isn’t necessarily directly related to health is infrequent social contact. Research shows that social connectedness reduces the risk of dementia significantly. However, there isn’t much research that points to specific activities. Still, it’s a good idea — for a multitude of reasons — to stay as socially connected as you can throughout life.
The Benefits of an Early Diagnosis
Early diagnosis is best for many reasons. If nothing else, an early diagnosis gives the most time possible. You or your loved one can work with a doctor to come up with a treatment plan. It allows time to internalize the diagnosis and understand what the next years will look like. This is especially important as dementia, left undiagnosed, can be scary and isolating.
Here are a few reasons why early diagnosis is best.
- You can know what to expect
- Treatments can be used more effectively
- You can focus on what’s important and prioritize it
- You’ll be able to make empowering decisions
Someone who has been diagnosed with dementia early in the process can also help reduce stigma. This is especially true in our community. Just about any mental health issue is stigmatized, and dementia is no exception. A 2018 analysis of different studies on understanding of dementia in South Asia found that there is explicit stigma. Read the overview of that analysis here.
In other words, the lack of understanding led many to believe dementia symptoms were just normal parts of ageing. Furthermore, some people went to far as to claim dementia was some sort of punishment. The common denominator was a simple lack of understanding.
Support is critical and patience vital. Love and care are what is needed after a dementia diagnosis. There is no reason that life should diminish with age. When we work together to destigmatize dementia and change our community’s attitudes, we will all benefit.