Demystifying dementia: What it is, the causes and how to reduce your risk
One in two Irish people know someone who is living with dementia. Despite this, only one in three people feel they have a good understanding of dementia.
On average, 11 people develop dementia in Ireland every day, and this number is set to increase as our population ages. Over 500,000 of us have had a family member with dementia. That’s mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues – people like you and me.
To separate the facts from fiction, we spoke to Professor Brian Lawlor, consultant psychiatrist and Chair of the Dementia: Understand Together Steering Group.
“Many people seem to believe that dementia is a natural part of aging, or that only the elderly develop dementia,” says Professor Brian Lawlor. “Although dementia usually affects people as they get older, it is not a normal part of aging. In fact, nine out of 10 older people don’t get dementia. A lot of people mature into their 80s and 90s without much memory decline."
Professor Lawlor says there also tends to be some confusion around the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Dementia is an umbrella term that refers to a condition whereby the person has problems with memory, orientation, language and judgement. It can be caused by various diseases that affect the parts of the brain that are normally used for learning, memory and language.
“It is usually a progressive condition and the symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.”
Reducing the risk
Although Alzheimer’s disease usually presents itself in people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, Professor Lawlor says “the build-up of toxic proteins that are the key characteristic of the disease occurs in the brain over approximately 20 years. Over the course of this time, nerve cells are being damaged. It is only later that people start showing the symptoms.”
So, is there anything we can do to reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?
“One of the more exciting research findings over the last number of years has been the understanding of risk factors for dementia and what we can all do to improve our brain health,” says Professor Lawlor.
“There is this window of opportunity early on in mid-life or even before mid-life to make positive changes that can help protect our brains. We could potentially reduce our risk of developing dementia, by taking steps such as exercising more often, not smoking, eating healthily, reducing alcohol intake and controlling high blood pressure. It is also vital to keep the brain active by being social and meeting people or challenging yourself by doing something new.”
Support and understanding
Professor Lawlor also stresses that it is important to avoid thinking that once you or a loved one has dementia, there is nothing that can be done.
“I know people, both on a personal and professional level, who are living with the experience of dementia at different stages. Although there is no cure, there are steps you can take to improve your quality of life, help symptoms and potentially slow down the disease, at least for a time. These include prompt medical treatment for infections, community supports, practical life changes and availing of support from family, friends and the wider community.
“In terms of the experience of dementia, it’s important to realise that everyone is different. Not everyone progresses at the same rate or will develop the same symptoms at particular stages.
“It’s so important to keep engaging with, and supporting, people who have dementia. Keeping the brain stimulated through activities or music can reduce anxiety and improve quality of life.”
Professor Lawlor says there are six actions we can all take to support and include people with dementia in their community. These are:
1. See the person, not the dementia
2. Ask how you can help
3. Stay in touch with the person and those around them
4. Support the person to keep up their hobbies and interests
5. If you have a business, make sure your space or service is easy to use
6. Talk about dementia
Although Maureen O’Hara, who has been diagnosed with dementia, has her off days, she says it is the support and her hobbies which help her.
“It has given me a freedom I never thought I would have,” says the former physiotherapist and keen hill-walker.
“I’m in my fifties and I’m retired. I am still physically fit and can still indulge all my pastimes. I have great hillwalking friends and lots of links within the local community – I’m very connected with people around me.”
Maureen urges people not to be apprehensive about approaching and talking to her, or other people with dementia.
“Just act normal. Don’t be afraid to greet me as you usually would. I might not remember your name but I will remember your face and I will remember a feeling of being with you. I’m always upfront with people.”
Professor Lawlor says that carers have an “immensely valuable role” although he acknowledges that it can be tough at times.
“One of the most difficult challenges for carers is the loneliness and isolation that they can experience. For many of those who have received a diagnosis, their families and loved ones have told us of feeling isolated within their own communities, of being written out of daily life.
“But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can all make a difference by offering support to our friend, neighbour or family member who is caring for someone with dementia.
“If you know someone who is a carer, don’t shy away and think that they are too busy to see you. Drop by for a chat. Don’t underestimate the difference that friendship and emotional support can make. It goes a long way towards improving the health and well-being of the carer, lessens the sense of isolation and loneliness they can experience and gives them a sense of wellbeing, comfort and hope.
“While a person with dementia may have problems with short-term memory and orientation, they can still interact quite normally and understand much more than they can express. Very often, their emotional memory of events that happened in the past is relatively intact, which is why reminiscence, conversation and music can be helpful and positive.
“Caregivers should not be afraid to ask for help and support from their family and friends. They should push themselves to take breaks and make sure they have time for themselves so that they can recharge their batteries.”
The Dementia: Understand Together campaign, led by the HSE in partnership with the Alzheimer Society of Ireland and Genio, aims to create an Ireland that embraces and includes people with dementia, and which displays solidarity with them and their loved ones.
For more information, check out the Dementia: Understand Together website or Freephone 1800 341 341. Phone lines are open Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm; Saturday 10am to 4pm.