A debilitating condition but early signs can be caught
As the number of people being diagnosed with dementia continues to rise, so too does the need for greater awareness, care services and support - for both the person with dementia and their loved ones.
This is a condition that can significantly impact the whole family, which is touched upon in Channel 4's new three-part documentary series Dementiaville, which started last week (the first episode's still on catch-up if you missed it).
Figures published by the Alzheimer's Society last year reported that more than 800,000 people in the UK have some form of the condition, the vast majority of whom are over 65 (in fact, around one in every 14 people aged 65 and above has dementia), and it's predicted these numbers will keep growing. Getting appropriate support can make a world of difference for those living with dementia, but spotting possible early warning signs can be very tricky.
After all, everybody gets a bit forgetful from time to time, or goes through phases of being "out of sorts" - so how do you know when these things are normal, or a symptom?
"It is common to experience changes in our memory as we get older, so it can be difficult to recognise which changes are normal and which could indicate a problem," says Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK (www.alzheimers researchuk.org).
"While we all might draw a blank on someone's name from time to time, or forget where we put our keys every once in a while, repeated and worsening forgetfulness that interferes with daily life could be more of a cause for concern."
There are various ways this could occur. Dr Karen Harrison Dening, director of Admiral Nursing at Dementia UK (www.dementiauk.org), says common examples might include losing items regularly, getting lost or disorientated in seemingly familiar places and repeating oneself frequently.
People might also get confused or muddled when it comes to routine tasks, like preparing a meal, getting dressed or putting the rubbish out.
"Dementia affects everyone differently, and memory changes are not the only possible early sign of the condition. Some people might experience personality changes, such as persistent uncharacteristic anger or irritability, lack of drive or low mood," explains Dr Ridley.
Somebody might suddenly seem to lose interest in things they were previously very interested in.
Personality changes could also include seeming more sensitive than usual, and getting frustrated or upset more easily.
Making poor judgments
A report in the news earlier this month - about an 84-year-old with dementia, who was repeatedly targeted by scammers and spent thousands of pounds on items that he didn't need - highlights how people with dementia might lose their ability to make sound judgments in certain circumstances, particularly financial ones, which can make them extremely vulnerable.
"This can result in poor financial decisions and the inability to manage a budget," says Dr Ridley.
I'm worried ... what should I do?
The signs outlined in the main story don't always indicate dementia, but it's a good idea to speak to your GP as soon as you have concerns.
"They will be able to determine whether there might be a need for more in-depth assessment by dementia specialists, and rule out other conditions that could be causing these problems," notes Dr Ridley.
A diagnosis of dementia is stressful for anyone - especially if they are already feeling isolated. As well as advice, continuous support for the person and the carers is critical.
For more details, contact Age NI Advice on tel: 0808 808 7575.
‘Lifestyle factors are also important such as sleep, exercise and diet’
Sean Hughes (35) is a learning and development officer with the Dementia Services Development Centre and lives in Belfast. He says:
Dementia in Northern Ireland is on the rise — there are currently just under 21,000 people affected by dementia here and I can remember that figure being under 19,000 just a couple of years ago.
It’s the same everywhere — and lifestyle can be a big factor. There is an increase in people with high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and diabetes, which can all lead to dementia.
The treatment of an individual with dementia in the UK can cost more each year than the treatment of someone with a condition such as heart disease or cancer.
We need care staff to be educated and supported when dealing with dementia and better awareness in communities.
The most important thing to do once a loved one has been diagnosed is to understand what kind of dementia they have. There are many different types — Alzheimer’s and vascular being the most common.
Understanding the condition means we can understand the symptoms and the type of care each individual needs.
Memory loss is one of the most common symptoms, but it’s not the only one. It’s important to realise that this memory-loss is not just a part of the normal ageing process — it’s a symptom of the disease.
For carers of those with dementia, creating a relaxing environment is a big help — and it can also assist the carer, too.
Lifestyle factors are also important, such as sleep, exercise and diet: if you take exercise during the day, it might help you to sleep better at night.
However, all of these activities should be meaningful and not forced upon the person, as that could create anxiety. The aim is to maintain a person’s reality as much as possible without causing distress.
Keeping active, doing what you enjoy doing and eating well can all help us avoid dementia.
It’s important to take care of your mental health as well as your physical health.”
Dr Dening notes that mood swings can often occur, too, so a person might seem quite "up and down", and they might not be able to follow conversations like they used to.