Is losing our memory an inevitable consequence for our parents’—and our—lives? By Vania Chew
We’ve all been guilty of memory lapses at times—forgetting a birthday or anniversary, that special ingredient we were supposed to pick up at the shops, where we put our car keys or where we parked our car. And more often than not, we joke about these memory lapses and tease each other about them.
However, for the more than 400,000 Australians and 60,000 New Zealanders who currently live with dementia, issues with remembering things are no laughing matter. Statistics from Alzheimer’s New Zealand also show the number of women with dementia is around 30 per cent higher than the number of men with the disease.
“The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that improvements in preventing and treating heart disease have contributed to an increase of life expectancy but deaths from dementia have continued to increase,” says Tamar Krebs, founder and CEO of Group Homes Australia, an aged care facility dedicated to caring for those living with dementia.
In 2016, dementia became the leading cause of death among Australian females, surpassing heart disease, which has been the leading cause of death for both males and females since the early twentieth century. According to Dementia Australia, females account for 64.4 per cent of all dementia-related deaths.
It should be noted that dementia is not exclusive to the elderly. “Younger onset dementia” can be diagnosed in people under the age of 65 and impacts about 25,000 Australians.
Unless someone comes up with a medical cure or breakthrough, the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling in Canberra claims the number of people with dementia in the country is expected to rise to more than one million by 2056 (an estimated 170,000 Kiwis are expected to be living with dementia by 2050).
With these kinds of statistics, chances are likely that your loved one is currently living with or will one day have dementia. So how can you recognise the symptoms?
In an interview with ABC Health & Wellbeing, cognitive neuroscientist Dr Maree Farrow says, “There are several types of dementia—the most common being Alzheimer’s disease—[but] there is a good deal of overlap in the symptoms each form carries.”
According to Tamar, such symptoms can include personality and behavioural changes, depression or withdrawal, loss of ability to do daily tasks, reduced concentration, increasing confusion, memory problems and not being able to remember recent events.
“Scanning a list of early warning signs can help you work out if you need further assessment,” Dr Maree says. “It may turn out you don’t have dementia at all, but rather one of a range of other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, and which may be highly treatable.”
She also pointed out that if you or a family member does have dementia, you have a better chance of benefiting from medication if a diagnosis is made early.
“We started wondering if something was wrong with my grandfather when he started telling the same stories over and over again,” says Mary Foster, a middle-aged woman from New South Wales. However, the most telling symptom of dementia turned out to be his difficulty in cooking and a gradual loss of both smell and appetite.
“He used to be great at cooking—much better than my grandmother!” says Mary. “But suddenly he wasn’t very interested in it anymore, not even when we asked him to do it.”
Her family cared for her grandfather until he passed away in 2015.
Dementia is estimated to cost Australia more than $15 billion this year. By 2025, the total cost of dementia has been predicted to increase to more than $18.7 billion in Australia, and over $4.6 billion in New Zealand by 2050.
“As a society we need to do more to reduce people’s risk of dementia so that we can delay or avoid the onset of dementia,” says Tamar.
“It is heartening to see that less Australian women are dying from heart disease due to better support and treatment options, however there is no cure for dementia. People with dementia struggle to find the appropriate services and support.”
In light of all these alarming statistics and prospects, what are some practical steps we can take now to reduce the risk of dementia?
“What is good for your heart is good for your brain too,” says Tamar. “This includes keeping physically active, mentally challenged, eating a healthy brain food diet such as the Mediterranean diet, getting enough sleep, remaining socially engaged and getting regular health checks.”
“We know from lots of research that people who do more stimulating activities throughout their life have better brain function and a lower chance of developing dementia,” agrees Dr Maree.
Sudoku and crossword puzzles are often touted as popular ways to keep mentally active. However, there are many other options, such as learning a second language, pursuing a course of study, reading widely or learning a musical instrument.
“There’s no reason you should sit down and do a crossword every day if you hate crosswords,” says Dr Maree. “Choose something else you’re going to enjoy. And if you’ve been doing crosswords for 30 years and are really good at them, it’s not going to be as stimulating for your brain as trying something you’ve not done before.”
“The key to success in giving an activity to a person with dementia is that it has to be engaging,” says Dr Lee-Fay Low in her book, Live and Laugh with Dementia. “The person with dementia has to want to start it and keep doing it.”
The key to success in giving an activity to a person with dementia is that it has to be engaging.
She notes that an activity is more likely to be engaging for a person with dementia if it is meaningful (of interest or value to the person) and achievable (at a level at which they can successfully participate in or complete).
“The only way to know what a person with dementia can do is to be observant and to consider each ability individually,” she explains.
Mary tried to get her grandfather to do crossword puzzles but he didn’t enjoy them. However he did develop an interest in playing with Lego.
“It was great for him because it was a simple way to practise his motor skills and cognitive skills as well as be creative,” says Mary. “He could literally spend hours sitting down and creating buildings with his Lego.”
And because Mary’s grandfather still enjoyed being in the kitchen, Mary assigned him simple tasks so that he could still feel like he was helping with the cooking.
Mary also took her grandfather on 30-minute walks each day, believing that physical activity was just as important for his brain as mental activity.
Regular aerobic exercise, including walking, in sessions of at least 30 minutes has been found to be beneficial for cognitive health, according to Dementia Australia. It is thought that exercise may improve blood flow to the brain, reduce cardiovascular risk factors and possibly stimulate nerve cell growth and survival.
Supporting those with dementia and their carers
“Dementia Australia is a charity for people with dementia and for their families and carers,” says Tamar Krebs, founder and CEO of Group Homes Australia, an aged care facility dedicated to caring for those living with dementia. “As the peak body, it provides advocacy, supports services’ information and education.”
Alzheimers New Zealand provides similar services.
“It’s really important to seek support as a carer,” says Mary Foster, who cared for her grandfather who had dementia until he passed away in 2015. “Many people don’t realise how much exhaustion and frustration carers experience. It’s difficult enough seeing your family member or friend going through something like this. It’s even harder when you’re trying so desperately to make a positive difference and you’re not sure if you are making any difference at all.
“My advice would be to look for a support group in your local area. You’ll have the chance to meet other carers at different stages on the same journey, ask all the questions you want to, even just share what you’re going through. You should be able to find one through Dementia Australia but if you can’t find a local support group, start one of your own. I guarantee there will be other people in your situation hoping for support as well."
Vania Chew is producer of At The Table TV show and also writes for At The Table magazine.