Misplaced your keys again? Forgot your second cousin’s birthday?
Don’t sweat it! Most people will experience this level of forgetfulness at some point in their life. In fact, around 40% of individuals over 65 years old experience what’s called, “age-associated memory impairment” which is a completely normal phenomenon. One of the major challenges in medicine is making the distinction between normal, age-related memory changes and something more serious, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Luckily, there are certain warning signs which can help clarify the diagnosis. These are discussed further below.
Alzheimer’s disease is known as a neurodegenerative disease. This means that the manner in which someone with Alzheimer’s can feel, think, or act, will change over time – as the disease progresses. These changes will vary in intensity from one person to another and typically consist of a decrease in cognitive and functional abilities (i.e. processing thought, memory, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language, and judgement), a shift in one’s emotions and moods, occasionally irrational and out of character behaviour, and a decrease in one’s physical abilities (i.e. coordination, mobility, and eventually simple tasks such as eating and bathing).
There are currently around 50 million people living with dementia worldwide, a large portion of which suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Although there is no cure, early detection and management can help ease and slow their symptoms.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s: What’s the Difference?
Many people use dementia and Alzheimer’s interchangeably, but in fact they are not the same! Dementia is a general term used for a combination of symptoms and brain disorders that can stem from multiple underlying causes. Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common subtype of dementia and accounts for around 60-80% of all cases, is a disease characterized with plaques and tangles overlying brain tissue which causes irreparable destruction of brain cells. Other causes of dementia include vascular dementia (related to diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol), Lewy body disease, Parkinson’s disease, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid gland problems, and chronic brain infections. Other conditions such as severe depression and even some medications can mimic the symptoms of dementia – and so it is important to consult your Doctor if you or a loved one are experiencing dementia-like symptoms in order to quickly pinpoint the underlying cause.
Warning Signs & Prevention
As mentioned above, there are normal levels of forgetfulness that can come with aging, but there are indeed a number of symptoms to be on the lookout for as well.
The following list of warning signs was created by the Alzheimer Society to help promote early diagnosis to better optimize an affected person’s overall health and long-term well-being:
Memory loss affecting day-to-day abilities – forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information.
Difficulty performing familiar tasks – forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed.
Problems with language – forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context.
Disorientation in time and space – not knowing what day of the week it is or getting lost in a familiar place.
Impaired judgment – not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.
Problems with abstract thinking – not understanding what numbers signify on a calculator, for example, or how they’re used.
Misplacing things – putting things in strange places, like an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
Changes in mood and behaviour – exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered.
Changes in personality – behaving out of character such as feeling paranoid or threatened.
Loss of initiative – losing interest in friends, family and favourite activities.
It is important to know that the onset of dementia could be delayed, and in some cases even prevented! Many studies have shown that you can reduce your risk by eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and lean meats (i.e. Mediterranean diet), avoiding overuse of alcohol and smoking, exercising regularly, and by maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight.
Fighting the Stigma
Although there are 10 million new dementia cases worldwide each year, it is still highly stigmatized and those living with them are often left to feel like outcasts or burdens to others. According to a survey led by the Alzheimer Society, 1 in 5 Canadians would prefer to withhold seeking professional help for their symptoms for as long as possible to avoid the stigma and embarrassment associated with the diagnosis. This is to the detriment of the affected individual and can only worsen the effects of their condition.
In light of World Alzheimer’s Day, we are continuing to aim for a world without stigma, and where all patients are treated with the same level of attention and respect. So how can you play a part in fighting this stigma? Start by learning about the different kinds of dementia and talking about them openly to familiarize others with them. Avoid making assumptions about the disease as it affects every person differently and openly correct others who make incorrect assumptions, cruel remarks or dementia-related jokes. Treating people with dementia with dignity and respect as you would anyone else is crucial as their diagnosis does not define who they are; no matter the advancement of their disease, they are simply a person with different needs. If you have a loved one with dementia, be a friend to them. Do not avoid or talk around them; the last thing they want is to be abandoned due to the nature of their condition. Social activity also slows the progression of their symptoms by keeping their brains and bodies active, so keep the conversation going! It is the kindest thing that you can do for them.
To learn more about Alzheimer’s and dementia, visit www.alzheimer.ca for more extensive information!
Stay Safe and Healthy Everyone! <3
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