Around a third (32%) of those aged 50+ have never heard of the condition Age-related [...]
The truth about dementiaCreated by Verity in Being You, Retirement
You may be getting forgetful but that doesn’t mean you have dementia, says Dr Simon Atkins. So stop worrying, and arm yourself with the facts instead. Dr Simon Atkins is a GP and author of First Steps to Living with Dementia published by Lion Hudson (£4.99).
Dementia is never far from the headlines. It’s in the papers nearly every day and has (quite rightly) become publicised as a centrepiece of the government’s healthcare policy. But this increased media coverage is a double-edged sword. While it raises awareness of this debilitating condition, it raises anxieties too. And there’s a danger that as soon as we become a bit forgetful, we start to worry that we are in the early stages of dementia ourselves and that we are on the road to a forgotten future. With 800,000 people in the UK suffering with dementia and that number set to at least double over the next 40 years, how do we know it won’t be our turn next? What is dementia anyway? How can we find out if we have it? And what can be done to treat it?
Dementia is not one single disease; it’s an umbrella term for the effects that a number of conditions have on our brains. The most common cause is Alzheimer’s disease which leads to dementia by causing brain cells to be destroyed by abnormal protein formations called plaques and tangles. Then there’s vascular dementia, which develops if the blood supply to our brain cells is reduced by atherosclerosis, which is when arteries become clogged up by fatty substances, or by full-on strokes. Lewy body disease is the next most common cause, which is when protein deposits are again responsible for the damage; and, finally, there’s frontotemporal dementia, which affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, for which the cause is still unknown. A handful of rarer causes like alcohol abuse and multiple sclerosis complete the list.
While each of these conditions has signature symptoms to identify them, they all lead to problems with three areas of normal brain functioning. This includes issues with thought processes (such as memory), emotions and mood (such as irritability or depression) and our ability to carry out the normal activities of daily living (such as washing, dressing and going to the shops alone). So, just having a few ‘senior moments’ is not in itself a sign of dementia. But if a number of these problems begin to occur together, alarm bells should start ringing. Examples would include memory loss plus difficulties with problem-solving, an inability to carry out familiar tasks, frequently becoming lost or disorientated about time, trouble finding the right words when speaking, always losing things, poor judgement about money, withdrawing socially and mood and personality changes.
If you, or a loved one, starts ticking a number of these boxes, then visit your doctor. GPs are well-placed to get the ball rolling with simple memory tests, as well as checks on various blood and urine samples to rule out treatable abnormalities that can mimic dementia. They may also arrange for scans of the brain to look for strokes, or shrinkage of brain tissue. If a diagnosis of dementia seems likely, a referral to a specialist memory clinic will probably follow. Here, more detailed tests can be performed and a diagnosis finalised.
There are a number of drugs that can be prescribed to help improve the symptoms of dementia and slow down the rate of deterioration. Organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society run support services for sufferers and their carers, such as Memory Cafes, where they provide advice about simple ways of managing difficult symptoms that can come with dementia, like wandering and falls. GPs and nurses can help with this too. During the early days after diagnosis, it’s also important to make plans. This may include writing a Living Will which dictates what doctors may or may not do to you if your physical health deteriorates, or sorting out lasting power of attorney, where you appoint someone to make financial decisions on your behalf if you are no longer able to. There are also a handful of welfare benefits, such as attendance allowance and council tax exemption, which your Citizens Advice Bureau can offer advice on.
Dementia is becoming more common as our population ages, but there is also more help available not only to reassure you when the symptoms don’t fit the bill, but to provide support when they do. This is good news and will help to ensure that if we, or a loved one, develop this condition, our best quality of life can be maintained for as long as possible.