Monday, 22 October 2012

Dementia: A National Crisis.

Year on year the number of people in the UK diagnosed as suffering from some form of dementia is reported to be growing and will continue to grow. It's said to be a "national crisis," but it's also an individual and very personal crisis for those who develop dementia and for their families, who are often their primary carers.

According to The Alzheimers Society, there are over 800,000 people in the UK who have been diagnosed with dementia. Of that number, 17,000 are "younger people."

Dementia affects mostly older people, but is not a natural consequence of aging.

In this and subsequent blog posts I shall look at what dementia is, how it affects individuals and ask a few questions about what causes it. At the moment, my thinking is that there is possibly a genetic tendency with environmental triggers: I shall describe what I think may be some of the environmental triggers. I shall also examine some ideas, currently being put forward, for preventing the onset of dementia and at least one idea for improving current symptoms and delaying the progression of dementia.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a an illness that usually occurs slowly over time, and usually includes a progressive state of deterioration. The earliest signs of dementia are usually memory problems, confusion, and changes in the way a person behaves and communicates. (Alzheimer's Reading Room

Common Types of Dementia and Their Typical Characteristics (From Alzheimers Reading room: link above.)

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia; accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases.
Difficulty remembering names and recent events is often an early clinical symptom; later symptoms include impaired judgment, disorientation, confusion, behavior changes and trouble speaking, swallowing and walking.
Hallmark abnormalities are deposits of the protein fragment beta-amyloid (plaques) and twisted strands of the protein tau (tangles).
  Vascular Dementia is considered to be the second-most-common type of dementia.
Impairment is caused by decreased blood flow to parts of the brain, often due to a series of small strokes that block arteries. (More on this in a later post)
Symptoms often overlap with those of Alzheimer’s, although memory may not be as seriously affected.
 Dementia with Lewy Bodies
Pattern of decline may be similar to Alzheimer’s, including problems with memory, judgment and behavior changes.
Alertness and severity of cognitive symptoms may fluctuate daily.
Visual hallucinations, muscle rigidity and tremors are common.
Hallmarks include Lewy bodies (abnormal deposits of the protein alphasynuclein) that form inside nerve cells in the brain.

Five more less common types of dementia are described on The Alzheimer's Reading Room web site. (Link above)

My Auntie Bessie was one of those "younger people," to have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's in her 50s. My cousin, Jessie, looked after her mother for as long as she could personally cope, while Bessie's illness progressed. Bessie would get up in the night and try to escape from the strange place where she was being held, though she had lived there for many years. She would get out of the house if she could and would wander the streets looking for her home: Jessie had to make sure all doors and windows were locked day and night. Bessie had always been fond of baking and was renowned for her good cakes, but once dementia set in, she lost any concept of how gas has to be lit and the gas cooker became a major risk factor for the family. 

Jessie looked after her mother until Bessie became progressively more violent. (As far as Bessie was concerned, she was surrounded by strangers and being held in a strange place against her will.) Eventually, Jessie agreed to have her mother taken to reside in a residential home and, like many carers in a similar situation, Jessie felt she had failed her mother. I believe this is fairly common among people who live with and care for someone with dementia, but in residential care, the staff go home at the end of a shift: family carers live with dementia, 24 hours a day.  

Alzheimer's Society:

Two thirds of people with dementia live in the community while one third live in a care home.
Family carers of people with dementia save the UK over £8 billion a year.

Next blog: Vaccines - Is there a link to dementia? 


squeaker said...

My mum had Alzheimer's and Lewy body dementia and after she died my dad worked tirelessly for the Alzheimer's Society. A few years later, he developed Alzheimer's too, which seemed to be an extra cruel twist. He was very angry when he was told he had Alzheimer's, but now he's forgotten he's got it! He is a VERY unusual case though, in that he is happy, and not aggressive at all. Although it's desperately sad to compare what he's like now to the dynamic businessman he was, we still laugh. On the way to an appointment at the Memory Clinic, he said "Remind me. Where are we going?"! The other day he tried to fry sausages in washing up liquid and saw the funny side. My mum wasn't like this at all. She used to get angry and throw things and demand to go home, when she WAS home. Then she would pack a bag with one shoe and a biro and my dad would drive her round the block and come home again. I do worry about my genetic make up though, although only my mum had early onset dementia and that's the kind that could be hereditary.

Thanks for the blog, Anna.

AnnaEsse said...

Squeaker, thanks for your comment and for telling me about your parents. I work with people with dementia and when I see their possessions around them and can imagine what they were like before, it's quite sad. Sometimes something quite amazing will happen, though, like the time a woman with very poor verbal skills saw a flock of starlings swooping and swirling and said it was like a choir. This group, then that group, then all together. Wonderful image.