Myths and Realities of dementia

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As of 2015, 46.8 million people worldwide suffer from the symptoms of dementia. Every 3.2 seconds, a new patient is added to the list, resulting in the doubling of numbers every 20 years. Given the significant incidence of this condition, it is imperative that we learn about the realities and myths of dementia.

What is dementia and what it is not?

In simple terms, dementia is ‘memory loss’. When the brain loses the capability to remember, it impacts various functions such as the inability to carry on with day-to-day activities, loss of language, confusion in identifying even familiar people, and a general decline in the ability to make decisions. Unlike ‘benign forgetfulness’, where one may not remember where the keys are placed, dementia can seriously limit actions – to the extent that one may forget how to bathe or eat.

Dementia is not a ‘disease’, it is a group of symptoms that indicate a state of decline in brain function. It is an umbrella term for brain disorder that can be caused by several reasons such as a stroke, Parkinson’s, etc. Often, it is confused with Alzheimer’s, which falls under the same category but is a specific condition and notably, irreversible.

Dementia’s connection to age

Dementia is an age related process that tends to occur post the age of 60, when sufficient brain neurons are lost. This may be confused with regular forgetfulness. But, dementia is a complex syndrome and forgetfulness is just one of its common symptoms. There is more to it!

Sometimes, parents fret over children forgetting during exams and reach out to prescribe memory pills. This kind of forgetfulness happens due to exam anxiety, lack of concentration and proper sleep and hence, should not be mixed up with ‘a memory loss’. Better sleep and reassurance works in these scenarios for children. But, a decreased IQ in children is uncommon and can be associated with an underlying disorder that needs medical attention.

Diagnosis and Cure

There is no ‘single test’ that identifies dementia, instead a host of factors and observations over a period of time can confirm it. It can manifest as difficulty in recalling the right word, challenges in handling money, forgetting objects and routes. Studying the patient’s history and cognitive testing with brain imaging and blood tests are required to confirm the diagnosis.

Once diagnosed, doctors identify the root cause of dementia. Only about 5% of cases are reversible, and these usually occur due to deficiency of Vitamin B12, hypothyroidism or underlying brain insults. Conditions such as ‘pseudo-dementia’ that happen because of underlying depression can be completely cured by treating the core problem.

However, a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s is irreversible. Some medications may help to improve cognition, but consuming memory boosting pills and OTC medicines can be risky because there is no scientific evidence to back these medications.

So what do we do about it, then?

Studies show that an anti-oxidant rich healthy diet and regular exercise may slow down the rate of dementia. Also, having a regular routine and doing simple mental exercises such as listing items before grocery shopping, journaling thoughts, jotting down the destination name before a journey and basic money management exercises may help the person experiencing dementia.

Most importantly, unconditional love and awareness about the condition and seeking timely medical help works to the benefit of not only the patient but also for the family providing care.

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