As we get older, its only natural we worry about our memory, and possibly those of our loved ones. Dementia is a condition affecting 400,000 people in Australia, 55% of whom are women. It’s the leading cause of death in women and second only to coronary artery disease in men. Three in 10 people over the age of 85 and almost 1 in 10 over 65 years old have dementia.
In 2018, dementia is estimated to have cost Australia $15 billion, it is the greatest cause of disability in Australians aged 65 years or older, and people with dementia make up more than half of all residents in residential aged care facilities.
In 2015 the Federal Government committed to supporting ongoing research in dementia..
Despite this impact on Australia’s health and finance, many people don’t really understand dementia, or more importantly, what we can do to help our friends, our families and ourselves. This article hopes to demystify the symptoms of dementia, offer some sensible advice about what to do in the event of a diagnosis, and where to get more information.
Dementia is the word used to describe a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain . The classic feature is the inability to carry out everyday activities as a consequence of reduced mental ability. Dementia can be diagnosed if two or more cognitive functions are significantly impaired, these can include memory language, understanding skills, judgement and attention.
Most people who get dementia are older BUT, it’s important to remember, most older people do not get dementia. It is not a normal part of ageing, it is a brain disease.
People under the age of 65 can develop dementia, and this is known as ‘younger onset dementia’. In most cases of dementia, genetics are not involved, but people with a family history do have an increased risks developing it.
Some of the most common types of dementia are:
- Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia, accounting for 2/3 of cases
- Vascular dementia – caused by damage to blood vessels in the brain, caused by a single stroke, or several strokes happening over time
- Lewy body disease and frontotemporal dementia
Early signs of dementia can include :
- progressive and frequent memory loss
- personality change
- apathy and withdrawal
- loss of ability to perform every day tasks
There are other conditions which may produce symptoms similar to dementia. These include some vitamin and hormone deficiencies, depression, medication effects, infections and rarely brain tumours. These possibilities can be explored with your GP.
Sometime people do not realise there is anything wrong with them because the brain changes that occur with dementia interfere with the ability to recognise or appreciate the onset of these symptoms. Others, who do have insight into their condition, may be afraid of having their fears confirmed.
At the moment, there is no cure, but some medications have been found to significantly reduce symptoms. Support is vital for people with dementia and their families.
If you do get diagnosed with dementia, it’s important to remember, you are still the same person, and the difficulties you are facing are not your fault. You will have good days and bad days, you are not alone, there are people who understand what you are going through and can help. Talking about your feelings with a trusted family member, friend or Dementia Australia counselling may help (see details at the end of this article).
Getting help early makes a difference, this will allow you to:
- plan ahead and make legal and financial plans
- get more information, to be better prepared for what may lie ahead
- seek support, it can be helpful to talk through what the diagnosis means and how to make adjustments
- organise practical help, help in the home, day centres, etc which can make a really positive difference
Good advice and assistance can come from
- a solicitor
- Legal aid
- Dementia Australia
Some health and lifestyle factors play a role in dementia development. Anything that can increase your chances of a heart attack, can increase your chances of dementia, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.
These five, simple tips can really help to maximise your brain health, and even help prevent dementia.
1 – Look after your heart – have regular health checks to check your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight. If needed, ask for help to stop smoking
2 – Do some kind of physical activity – regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates new brain cell growth and the connections between them, 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days, is ideal .
3 – Mentally challenge your brain – it has been found that activities that involve thinking and learning, or are new or challenge the brain, helps to build new brain cells and strengthen the connections between them. Suggestions include learning a new instrument, or a language, have a go at a new hobby, as long as it’s new, complex and done often
4 – Follow a healthy diet – our brain needs a variety of nutrients to function properly, choose lots of vegetables, and some fruit, chose healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil over butter or coconut or palm oil. Fish. Lean or low fat cuts of meat. Eat less full fat milk, fried foods, desserts, pies and pastries. If you drink alcohol, try and limit it to no more than 2 standard drinks or any day
5 – Enjoy social activities – spending time with people, whose company you enjoy, in ways that interest you, is good for your brain health. It helps to build new brain cells and strengthen the connections between them, which can protect you from dementia. Activities that combine being physically active, social interaction and are mentally challenging, provide the best benefit of all! This could be taking up a dance class joining a sports team, or a walking group or a book club.
Although dementia is a difficult and emotional subject to talk, and think about, we are incredibly lucky to have some fabulous resources and support in Australia, and there is lots of good advice out there that can make the journey less frightening.
Where to get help
National dementia helpline- Dementia Australia tel. 1800 100 500
Aged care assessment services tel. 1300 135 090
My aged care (Australian government information line) tel 1800 200 422
Cognitive dementia and memory service (CDAMS) clinics tel 1300 135 090
Dr Pethen is a GP at your Family Doctors at Erina, a doctors surgery that aims to deliver high quality care with a personal touch, find them at www.yourfamilydoctors.com.au or phone 4365 4999