The Dementia Café’s founder, Emily-Jane Stapley recently spoke to someone whose Granddad had dementia. They said that their granddad ‘was fine’ and lived at home with his wife who looked after him. They mentioned that he was ‘a bit forgetful’, but then he had a fall that brought on a heart attack which he died from. Still talking about their grandfather, he said that ‘he was old anyway’.
This story made it sound like everything was fine, and made it sound like the entire dementia process was almost normal. But the reality is that there is so much more to it than this. So much more.
Image Source: On Health
Dementia is not a natural part of ageing, and the condition is poorly understood. It affects 10% of the population, and 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 will be afflicted. The disease, however, is becoming increasingly common as people are living longer.
Dementia is the collective name for brain diseases that cause a decline in the ability to think and remember, which affects the person’s daily functions. The diseases include:
- Alzheimer’s Disease, which affects around 50-70% of dementia cases
- Vascular dementia, which affects about 25% of those with dementia
- Lewy Body dementia, affecting 15% of cases
- Frontotemporal dementia, which makes up the rest
In this piece, I will focus on Alzheimer’s Disease.
Photo Credit: BrightFocus Foundation
Alzheimer’s disease was named after German psychiatrist and pathologist Alois Alzheimer after he first described the disease in 1906. The usual onset of the disease is in people aged 65 or over, but it can begin in people who are younger. The cause of Alzheimer’s is not understood, and there are many theories about it, however, there are certain risk factors that can increase the chance of getting the disease. These are:
- A family history of the condition
- Previous severe head injuries
- Lifestyle factors and conditions associated with cardiovascular disease
- Increasing age
Alzheimer’s causes the brain to atrophy- to shrink, which affects its ability to function, and it also damages the neurons responsible for carrying messages to and from the brain. Like most diseases, Alzheimer’s progresses in stages, each carrying its own set of symptoms.
In the initial stages, people with Alzheimer’s will show lapses in memory. The issue with this is that in the early stages, symptoms can often be mistaken for other conditions or simply old age. A person with early-stage Alzheimer’s may exhibit the following symptoms:
- Difficulty remembering recent events and conversations, or misplace items
- Repeating themselves frequently, asking the same question multiple times
- Difficulty remembering place names and objects, or remembering the right word
- Have poor judgement or difficulty making decisions
- Become less flexible about trying new things
The person will become more frustrated and possible mood changes because of this; to help, try being patient with them to reduce any difficulties or problems.
As the disease progresses, the memory will worsen, and many begin to struggle to recognise friends and family as more symptoms present themselves. This will, obviously, cause emotional distress for family and friends of the person. Some typical symptoms of mid-stage Alzheimer’s can include:
- Impulsive, obsessive, and aggressive behaviour
- Increasing disorientation and confusion- not knowing what day it is, getting lost or wandering
- Paranoia or delusions
- Changes in mood, or frequent mood swings
- Difficulty with speech
- The difficulty with and disturbed sleep
- The difficulty with spatial tasks, like judging distances
This is the stage of the disease where they will need help with their daily needs, like getting washed and dressed and using the toilet. Many people, mostly friends and family of a loved one with the disease, will begin to find struggles as they help with their daily needs.
Image: Healthy Chesapeake
In the later stages of the disease, any of the above symptoms one may experience will become more severe, and this will become more distressing for the individual with dementia, as well as for their friends and family. Sometimes, the hallucinations and delusions will come and go, causing the person to become violent, suspicious or demanding of those around them.
More symptoms may also present themselves, such as:
- Difficulty eating and swallowing
- Urinary incontinence
- Bowel incontinence
- Weight loss due to difficulty eating
- Loss of speech
- Difficulty moving around or changing position
By this time, full-time care and assistance will be necessary for them to eat, drink and use the toilet. Many people will struggle without help, and sometimes specialist help is required.
Alzheimer’s cannot be cured, but it can be treated. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is key to reduce your risk of the disease, and to slow down the progress in those already with it. Sensory rooms and dementia-friendly centres like memory cafes can also help sufferers of the condition. If you are worried about someone suffering memory loss, or if memory loss is bothering you, visit your GP. They can rule out other conditions that can affect the memory, like depression or stress. The sooner the disease is diagnosed, the easier you can slow down the progress by making changes to your lifestyle.
Dementia is not a normal process of ageing.
Featured Image: Queensland Brain Inst.
Article Written by: Marsha Turner