Many of us have first-hand knowledge of dementia, perhaps with family members or acquaintances who have suffered from it or even have suspicions that a loved one’s behaviour could mean that they are at risk of developing the disease. It is a debilitating disease, feared by many as they approach old age, due to the massive impact that it has on the life of the sufferer and their family. Much of the fear around dementia lies in the fact that it remains a largely unknown disease and there is little in the way of concrete knowledge about its causes and what interventions, if any, can be used to prevent its onset or lessen its symptoms.
What are the risk factors for developing dementia?
Dementia can strike anybody but there are certain factors which make developing the condition more likely. Age is probably the most well-known risk factor and it is generally the case that you are more likely to develop dementia as you get older, though it is certainly not an inherent part of the aging process itself. Secondly, genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a part in the onset of the disease, though the extent to which this is the case is not clear.
As well as the age factor, the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care (LCDIC) has recently published a research paper which pinpoints some additional risk factors which, combined together, account for approximately 35% of the risk of suffering from dementia. These risk factors are as follows:
- Obesity, hypertension and type 2 diabetes
These factors were all found to increase the risk of developing dementia, with the highest being hypertension with an increased risk of 2%. However, as all three factors are interlinked to some extent, it can be difficult to pinpoint the impact of each one independently.
The research found that this risk factor contributed towards a 5.5% higher risk of the onset of dementia.
- Physical inactivity
The research found that older individuals who did regular exercise were more likely to maintain a higher standard of cognitive function for longer than those who did not.
- Hearing loss
An interesting and previously unproven risk factor for dementia seems to be hearing loss in midlife, contributing up to 9.1% of the risk of developing the disease.
The research found that the depression factor contributed towards a 4% higher risk of the onset of dementia, one of the main reasons being their effect on stress hormones.
- Social isolation
There is increased interest in this particular risk factor as older people in our society live more and more isolated lives due to the fact that community plays less of a part than in the past. However, like the depression risk factor, it is difficult to distinguish whether social isolation is a cause or a symptom of dementia.
- Low levels of education
This risk factor is potentially another surprising one – the LCDIC found that those who had no secondary school education were 7.5% more likely to develop dementia as older adults.
What are the symptoms of dementia?
Of course, everyone’s goal is to understand the risk factors for the disease better, hoping to reduce the likelihood of developing it altogether. However, until such a time when medical research makes this a possibility, let’s take a look at how to recognise the key symptoms of dementia early on. This is particularly important if you suspect that a loved one is in the early stages of dementia as it can be difficult to determine the subtle signs that mark the onset of the disease and other characteristics which go hand in hand with old age in general.
Symptoms can be tricky to define as they depend largely on the individual and also the area of the brain that is affected. However, common symptoms include the following:
- Memory loss is often the symptom which makes itself apparent first. You may notice that your loved one struggles to bring either recent or more historical memories to mind quickly; finds it difficult to place people who are known to them or generally becomes more forgetful and confused.
- People suffering from dementia sometimes find it difficult to summon the right words in everyday conversation, or carry out otherwise routine and straightforward tasks such as counting money or writing things down.
- Sometimes sufferers neglect their personal hygiene and grooming or demonstrate symptoms of depression or general agitation or nervousness.
How should I broach the subject of dementia with a loved one?
If you have suspicions that your loved one is suffering with dementia and is displaying some of the key symptoms, your likely next step is to approach them to discuss it with them. Of course, this can be a very delicate and upsetting conversation for both you and them and much depends on your handling of the situation although, of course, you cannot completely control your loved one’s reaction. Here are some helpful tips to support you in broaching this difficult topic:
- Timing is of the essence in this situation and it is recommended that you choose a time when your loved one is alert and calm so that they can take in what you are saying.
- Plan what you want to say in advance. This may involve looking for a natural opening to bring up your concerns and voice them in a sympathetic and non-judgemental way.
- Try to encourage your loved one to share their own thoughts and feelings with you, rather than dictating to them what you think they should do. Of course, you have their best interests at heart, but it is important to them that the next steps are taken as part of a partnership between the two of you and are something that they buy into fully themselves as well.
Finally, remember that the process can take time, as yourself and your loved one come to terms with the diagnosis of dementia and all of the associated feelings and fears around it.