Dementia in the Media: Miracles, Research and Evidence

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There is a lot about dementia in the press these days.  Headline news seems to be telling us that there is a miracle cure coming, but when you read the small print, it turns out that the study is at a very early stage…or that it is just a good idea with no research to back it up. 

More and more characters in fiction are affected as seen in movies like the biopic of Margaret Thatcher “The Iron Lady” - and now even Sylvie Carter, a character in East Enders so we are all constantly reminded, even if not directly affected.

Do you ever wonder if you are going to get dementia?  For most people in their fifties, the answer is “Not yet!”  The latest figures from the Alzheimer’s Society indicate that the number of people with dementia under the age of 65 is really small, around 5% of the total number of those affected. 

How should we take care of older relatives?

The bigger problem for people in our age group is how to take care of our older relatives who are affected.  By the time a woman is in her nineties she has a fifty percent chance of having dementia.

Do you ever wonder if you are going to get dementia?  For most people in their fifties, the answer is “Not yet!”  The latest figures from the Alzheimer’s Society indicate that the number of people with dementia under the age of 65 is really small, around 5% of the total number of those affected.

Advice on how to manage this is difficult to come by, and there is a huge inequality.  If your older relative is afflicted by cancer, the health care system will take care of all the cost, but if the problem is dementia, the chances are you’ll have to sell their house to pay for the care. 

For people who are already affected, there are some things that can be done to reduce the symptoms of dementia.  To do that you need to understand a bit about what causes the dementia and what solutions exist to the most difficult problems. 

It is often described as a memory problem but my friends with dementia and their families tell me memory loss is the least of the issues. 

More difficult are behaviours like wandering, aggression, sleeplessness, and anxiety. There is some dementia medication that is well worth having, but even the manufacturers agree it is limited in what it can do. 

Stress is a huge problem and it gives rise to agitated behaviour that is hard to deal with.

Useful short booklets like 10 Helpful Hints for Carers outline what evidence based interventions are known about for these situations.

Can we avoid getting dementia?

What can we do to avoid getting dementia ourselves in the future? Here is some basic science that helps understand what works….dementia is just a symptom of an underlying disease. 

The commonest, Alzheimer’s disease, which affects more than half of the cases, is a condition where the brain gradually shrinks and brain cells die.  The second most common is vascular dementia, where the blood supply to parts of the brain has been cut off – like a mini-stroke. After each blockage, a tiny bit of the brain stops working. 

The fuel your brain needs is oxygen, and that is carried by blood.  If you do all the things that will improve your circulation it will help your brain to function the best it can, even if it is already affected by Alzheimer’s type of damage. 

Research into how to avoid dementia is complex because it can be affected by genetics, life-style, accidents and sheer bad luck.  There is a global race to find a medicine or vaccine that will prevent or cure it…but what do we do in the meantime with the evidence we have got?

“What is good for your heart is good for your head”. 

The fuel your brain needs is oxygen, and that is carried by blood.  If you do all the things that will improve your circulation it will help your brain to function the best it can, even if it is already affected by Alzheimer’s type of damage.  The heart health rules apply; exercise, take care of your weight and blood pressure, be careful around alcohol.  A glass of red wine or champagne a day is said to be good, but if you can’t stick to one, none is better.  Stop smoking, immediately. 

People who have had poorly controlled clinical depression, high blood pressure, and diabetes seem to be more susceptible to dementia than others – so get any problems seen to now, and stick to the doctor’s orders.

Genetic components to dementia

I met an American woman in Washington recently whose family all have an inherited form of Alzheimer’s that usually starts at “working age” (under 65).  She observed that her brothers and sisters who had college education started their symptoms around ten years later than the others.  

One younger person in the family who was a rebel and fell out of education altogether started symptoms in her thirties.

With a regime of careful exercise and social support this woman was doing fine most of the time.  This illustrates the point that education seems to help. 

It is like working out…the more strength you build, the more spare capacity you have if something goes wrong.  It won’t prevent the disease, but it will keep the symptoms at bay for longer.  Bi-lingual people seem to get this effect as well…so it is time learn that new language now!

The Dementia Services Development Centre

At the University of Stirling Dementia Services Development Centre we are working to get the information about what you can do to delay dementia or diminish the symptoms into the hands of those who need it.  It is surprisingly difficult – until you realise that most health and social care practictioners have had no education about it.  Lots of science…but very little practical advice. 

Dementia: the one-stop guide

The book Dementia; the one-stop guide is being published as part of our 25th anniversary year project – to find out what people need to know and make that information available as easily as possible.