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Dementia is an illness that’s generally associated with old age, but the ripple effects of this condition are felt throughout our community, whatever your stage of life. For those living with dementia, it is a challenging and emotional journey, and it’s a journey that also affects their loved ones in a profound way. Carers, partners, children, neighbours, friends and colleagues all feel the effects of a person’s struggles with dementia.
But here’s the thing - dementia is NOT an inevitable part of the ageing process. Research is ongoing into the cause, cure, care and prevention of dementia and with increased awareness we can help support those with the condition, and their carers, to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
Knowledge is power, so no matter what your age or personal circumstances, it’s time to get to know dementia.
Let's firstly clarify what it is not! Dementia is not a natural part of ageing, and it is not an inevitable side effect of getting old. It is defined by the Alzheimer’s Society as a set of symptoms that develop when the brain is damaged by disease. It is a progressive condition, meaning the symptoms can be relatively mild at first, but they can get worse over time, affecting memory, problem-solving, language and behaviour. Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia, followed by vascular dementia.
Currently, there are almost one million people living with dementia in the UK and 65% of them are women. This is mainly because women live longer than men and dementia is more prevalent as you get older. The number of people with dementia is predicted to rise, both globally and here in the Bailiwick as the ageing population increases, with the number of people aged over 85 in Guernsey expected to triple by 2050. It is estimated that dementia will affect one in two of us in our lifetime, either through developing the condition ourselves or by caring for someone with dementia. Here at The List we have experienced the sorrow of dementia personally, and the chances are that you too know someone whose life has been touched by dementia.
Dementia is caused when nerve cells in the brain are damaged. These nerve cells are needed to send messages between different parts of the brain and to other parts of the body. When cells are damaged, the brain works less efficiently. There are many different risk factors that can increase a person’s chance of developing dementia. These include your general health and lifestyle, as well as social and environmental factors.
There is currently no cure for dementia but research is ongoing to better understand the illness and find ways to slow down the process, with medication and holistic approaches to care. It's important to know that you can reduce some of the risk of developing dementia through your lifestyle choices by, for example, being active and eating a healthy diet. But some risk factors, such as the ageing process, can’t be controlled. The general consensus amongst professionals is that a timely diagnosis is key to help you and your loved ones to access treatment and local support and plan ahead to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
Many people think of dementia in terms of memory loss, but it is much more complex than simply forgetting things. Each person experiences dementia in their own way, especially in the early stages, and there are different types of dementia. Early signs and symptoms of dementia include:
It is common to occasionally forget a date or a name, or to find it more difficult to multitask as you get older. And although it’s frustrating when you walk into a room and can’t quite remember what you went in there for, it is usually just a sign that you are distracted rather than an early sign of dementia. The changes caused by dementia are more persistent and more serious, affecting your decision making, your mood and your behaviour. So there’s no need to worry that you have dementia if you or a loved one are a bit forgetful. There may be many other reasons, such as stress, infection or low mood. However if you are worried about your memory, it’s important to speak with your GP for advice and guidance.
Just because a close relative has dementia, that doesn’t automatically mean that you will develop the condition too. Dementia Friendly Guernsey explains that the genes we inherit have a relatively small impact on our risk of developing dementia. In most cases it’s down to the cumulative effect of the ageing process and lifestyle factors, rather than genetics.
Whatever your age, there are many simple healthy lifestyle habits you can adopt to help reduce your risk of dementia. In the same way that you can improve other parts of your health and wellbeing, you can take steps to improve your memory and concentration and future proof your brain health, right now! Not sure where to start? Take a look at these 8 Simple Ways to Boost Your Brain Health Right Now
There are currently over 70,000 people in the UK under the age of 65 with young onset dementia. The challenges people with early onset dementia face can be different to those faced by older people, not least because it comes at a time when it is least expected, impacting relationships, employment and finances. However, support is available and early intervention can make a big difference.
With the right support in place many people can and do live well with dementia in the early years. Although the condition will inevitably have an impact on all aspects of their life as it progresses, they are still the same person. Focusing on the things they can still do and enjoy, and staying socially active, can help them stay positive. Think about telling people about your diagnosis, when you are ready, so that they have more understanding of your situation and the effects dementia has on your everyday life. You may lose touch with some people, but as awareness grows we can all play a part in improving the quality of life of people living with dementia and their carers.
Paul Corcoran is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in the Older Adult Mental Health Team here in Guernsey and he advises that the first point of contact if you are worried about your memory is your GP, who will likely perform some basic memory tests and undertake some blood tests to rule out other causes of memory impairment.
"If the GP is concerned they may refer you on to have a more specialist assessment undertaken in your own home by a specialist nurse from the Memory Clinic. If a diagnosis is reached it will be delivered sensitively and the person will be linked in with post-diagnostic services which includes optional involvement in a Cognitive Stimulation Group as well as help in planning ahead for the future."
Local support is available for people living with dementia, and their carers, to help them to carry on living as full a life as possible, and to encourage them to carry on doing things that matter to them. Guernsey Alzheimer’s Association supports carers of people with Alzheimer’s and other types of Dementia and Dementia Friendly Guernsey offers a dementia care pathway to help people living with dementia and their families to access support and plan for the future.