Life Health & Wellbeing

Thursday 19 July 2018

10 things to know about dementia

The number of people with dementia in Ireland is expected to double in the next 20 years - to 113,000. Dr Christine Fitzgerald describes the condition and how we can support those living with it

Social activity can help people live well with dementia
Social activity can help people live well with dementia
Stock image

Every day in Ireland, an average of 11 people are diagnosed with dementia. In fact, right now there are 55,000 people living with dementia in this country - more than would fill the Aviva Stadium.

Yet while many of us know someone with dementia, very few really understand it. A survey last year by the Health Service Executive found that just one in four believes that they have a good understanding of what dementia is.

Dr Christine Fitzgerald, from Trinity College's Global Brain Health Institute, working with the nationwide 'Dementia: Understand Together' campaign, shares the following 10 things to know about dementia - to help you better support people living with the condition.

1 There is more than one type of dementia

Dementia is not just one condition - in fact there are 400 different types. Dementia is an umbrella term for different diseases that damage the nerve cells in the brain.

Many people will know or have met someone with Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer's disease accounts for the majority of cases in older people and often develops slowly, over several years. In the early stages it can be difficult to distinguish from the mild forgetfulness that can be a normal part of ageing. September is World Alzheimer's Month with events taking place around the globe to raise awareness and understanding of this particular type of dementia.

Another common but less well-known type of dementia is vascular dementia. This develops when the blood supply to the brain is reduced because of narrowing or blockages in blood vessels and brain cells becoming damaged.

It can occur suddenly, for example, following a stroke affecting major blood vessels, or it can occur more slowly over several years, particularly for people who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes.

2 Forgetfulness doesn't always mean dementia

Lots of things - other than dementia - can cause memory loss, including depression, thyroid abnormalities, vitamin deficiencies and side-effects of medications, many of which can be treated.

While it's not unusual for people to forget names or where they have put their keys from time to time, with dementia, memory loss is more significant than occasional forgetfulness and tends to gradually get worse. People may also begin to struggle with everyday tasks like paying bills and may get lost in familiar surroundings.

Whatever the cause, it is important to get to the root of the problem. If you are worried about your memory or think that you may have dementia, it's a good idea to see your GP.

3 Getting older doesn't mean you will develop dementia

Although dementia usually affects people as they get older, it's not a normal part of ageing. While most people who are living with dementia are aged over 65 years, the vast majority of older people do not develop the condition.

Similarly, dementia is not experienced only by older people - there are at least 4,000 people under the age of 65 years living with it in Ireland today. In someone under 65, this is called early or younger onset dementia. People who are diagnosed may have a family history of dementia and genetics may play a role. It can also affect those with other conditions such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Huntington's disease or HIV.

4 No person's experience of dementia is the same

Dementia is not all about memory loss and confusion. These are key features but everybody who lives with dementia will have their own unique experience.

Some people have difficulty with language and finding words, while others struggle with everyday tasks. Some find that their personality or mood changes while others lose interest in getting involved in new projects.

Similarly, how dementia affects people over time will also be unique to each person - their relationships, other health conditions, how people respond to them and their environment may all have an impact on how their symptoms progress.

5 Living well with dementia

Although there is no cure, there are steps that a person can take to potentially stabilise the course of dementia - at least for a time. These include medical treatment, community supports and practical life changes. Crucially, a diagnosis of dementia does not mean that people cannot still live well for a number of years.

Activities that focus on keeping mentally, socially and physically active can help a person to live well with dementia.

A variety of social supports are available, including Alzheimer cafes - informal spaces where people with dementia, their families, carers and healthcare professionals can come together to learn and share experiences. Arts programmes, such as visual art workshops and memory choirs, also provide an opportunity to come together and socialise.

6 Technology and robots can help!

Technology plays an increasingly important role in supporting and enabling people living with dementia to do so more independently. Assistive technologies are helping to promote safety and well-being as well as assisting with tasks such as locating missing objects such as a purse or a bunch of keys, telling the time of day and the date, or taking medications at the right time.

There is also much interest in the potential of therapeutic interactive robots. Robots have been shown to improve the health and quality of life of people living with dementia by lowering their stress levels, decreasing loneliness and increasing communication. They can also improve socialisation, with some capable of responding to sound as well as the ability to learn common words over a period of time.

7 Ireland's first 'Dementia Village' to open this month

The number of people living with dementia in Ireland is expected to more than double over the next 20 years from 55,000 to 113,000 by 2036. New ways of caring for people who are diagnosed are therefore vital. One example of what is possible is in Bruff, Co Limerick, which will soon be home to Ireland's first dementia village.

Based on a model from the Netherlands, this custom-built development will provide independent living with a strong sense of community for those living with dementia. The four-acre site will include 18 homes with private gardens, as well as a cafe, beauty salon, gym, men's sheds and gardens.

8 You can reduce your risk

Did you know that there are steps that you can take to reduce your risk of dementia? Take blood pressure, for example. While many are aware of the links between high blood pressure and heart disease and stroke, very few realise that it is also a risk factor for dementia. Unfortunately, over half of all adults in Ireland over 45 years of age have high blood pressure - and many of these aren't even aware that they have it. If you are over 30, it's best to have your blood pressure checked every year.

Other steps that may help to prevent dementia include adopting a healthy, active lifestyle. Every adult should aim to include 150 minutes of physical activity in their week. Diet is important too and plant-based foods, similar to those in the Mediterranean diet, have been shown to lower the risk of dementia.

Reducing your alcohol intake and quitting smoking positively impacts your brain health. It is also vital to keep the brain active by being socially engaged and meeting people, challenging yourself with mind games or puzzles, and learning skills or getting involved in new activities.

9 The largest donation in Irish history was made to dementia research

In 2015, Atlantic Philanthropies gave €138.4m to Trinity College Dublin and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), to establish the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI). GBHI is working to reduce the scale and impact of dementia around the world by training and supporting a new generation of leaders who can translate research evidence into effective policy and practice. The landmark award was the largest single programme grant Atlantic Philanthropies ever made, the biggest philanthropic donation in Irish history and the largest ever received by Trinity College Dublin.

10 You can make a BIG difference

What can make dementia more daunting is the reaction of the wider community. People living with dementia and their families speak of feeling isolated within their own communities and excluded from daily life.

It is not that people are being deliberately unkind. Unfortunately, many do not fully understand what dementia is and what a diagnosis means. This lack of understanding can make it difficult to know what to say or how to help.

We can all help make life better for people living with dementia by making some small changes. If you know someone with dementia, you can help them to continue to participate in everyday life. Call around for a cuppa and a chat, offer your time and support, go out for coffee, or invite them for a walk or to take part in their favourite past-time.

If you own a business, why not avail of free online dementia awareness training? If you own a shop, does your layout and signage work for a person with dementia? If you are involved in a community organisation, why not set up an Alzheimer cafe for people to gain mutual support?

Together we can make a difference in the life of someone with dementia, their loved ones and carers. What will you do?

  • Dementia: Understand Together is a campaign led by the HSE, working with the Alzheimer Society of Ireland and Genio, which aims to increase awareness of dementia. See understandtogether.ie

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