This is the third annual Dementia Month organised by Alzheimer’s Disease International with the aim of raising awareness about the disease and all forms of dementia. This year’s theme is ‘Can We Reduce The Risk?’ From all the recently published research, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’! It’s now pretty well accepted that living a healthy lifestyle, keeping physically and mentally active, eating and drinking sensibly and maintaining social connections can all help thinking, memory and problem solving skills throughout our lives. In fact, taking up new activities like Yoga have been shown to have real benefits. So, have we found the answer? Do we need to stop worrying about dementia?
Well no…. there is a cellular and genetic component to dementia and continued research is needed to find ways of reducing the impact of the disease, if not a cure. The predictions about the rate of growth of dementia in the coming decades are still very scary. And people currently living with dementia and those caring for them also need our support today.
For me, the biggest shift has to be in the perceptions that accompany the word dementia. It’s still seen as a diagnosis of despair, as a long slide towards senility and dotage, where you are robbed of your dignity and decision making powers. However, if a diagnosis is given at an early stage, the person with dementia has an opportunity to plan ahead, make decisions for themselves, involve loved ones in the process and also develop coping techniques. It’s not easy to go through this process, but with the understanding and support of family and friends, it can ensure the person with dementia lives the life they chose to for as long as possible.
If there were less stigma associated with dementia, there might be more pressure to ensure diagnoses were readily available at an early stage. Many people are frightened to ask about dementia as they fear the result, but equally the current diagnostic tools only catch people who have already developed memory impairment. There is promising work being done to identify changes in the brain using a simple eye test; an optometrist can see signs beta-amalyoid protein, which form clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimers. A US start up Neurotrack is comparing eye tracking maps of a person viewing a novel image compared to a familiar image to predict the potential for developing Alzheimer’s Disease. The work has been validated by a US National Institute of Health 5 year study. These strands of work will hopefully pave the way for more research; Alzheimer’s is only one form of dementia, albeit the most common.
So we have a catch 22 – the tests don’t pick up things early enough and people don’t want to ask, so there’s no call for change. What we need is a change in the perception of dementia, that it is possible to live life to the full with a diagnosis as long as possible and then plan to move to the end of life with dignity. Isn’t that what we all want, whether we have dementia or not? Perhaps dementia will be the catalyst for more open discussion about death and planning for the end of life. I would welcome that.