This early warning sign of dementia is often overlooked, according to a new study

·5 min read
Some memory loss may be due to aging, however progressive memory loss could be a sign of something more serious. (Getty Images)
Some memory loss may be due to aging, however progressive memory loss could be a sign of something more serious. (Getty Images)

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Forgetting where you put something or a failing to recall a person’s name can happen to anyone. However it becomes much more distressing when frequent memory loss begins to affect our daily lives and in some cases, can eventually cause us to lose our independence.

While memory loss could be the result of infection, depression or anxiety or other medical conditions, it may also be due to dementia.

Impaired memory currently impacts more than half a million Canadians and is expected to nearly double by 2030, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

A recent study by the University of Exeter highlighted an early symptom of dementia that tends to be overlooked: apathy. Apathy or the loss of interest, enthusiasm or concern, is the "leading neuropsychiatric symptom of dementia" however it often goes unnoticed by families and in care.

According to Dr. Miguel de Silva Vasconcelos, apathy is overlooked because they seem "less disruptive and less engaging." However, this change in behaviour greatly impacts people with dementia's quality of life, as well as their families.

"Where people withdraw from activities, it can accelerate cognitive decline and we know that there are higher mortality rates in people with apathy," de Silva Vasconcelos told Science Daily. "It's now time this symptom was recognized and prioritized in research and understanding."

What is dementia?

Dementia is not a disease, but a general term used to refer to disorders that cause progressive loss of cognitive functioning, which means it affects your way of thinking, remembering and reasoning. Many people who are diagnosed with dementia can also experience changes in their mood and personality.

More than 500,000 Canadians live with dementia or Alzheimer's disease (a form of dementia). As our population ages, experts project the number of people living with some from of dementia to be as high as 930,000 by 2030.

What are the warning signs of dementia? (Getty Images).
What are the warning signs of dementia? (Getty Images).

What causes dementia?

Dementia results from a variety of diseases and injuries that primarily or secondarily affect the brain.

Are dementia and Alzheimer's disease the same thing?

Although they are often used interchangeably, Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. According to the World Health Organization saying it contributes to 60-70% of dementia cases. Many people use the terms "dementia" and "Alzheimer's" interchangeably, but in reality Alzheimers is the cause and dementia is the effect.

Stroke, head injuries and even Parkinson’s disease are also causes of dementia.

What are common symptoms of dementia?

According to experts, the most common symptom of dementia is short-term memory loss. This includes forgetting something that happened or was said within the last 10-15 minutes, repeating oneself and asking the same questions.

Dr. Andrew Frank, a cognitive neurologist at the Bruyere Memory Program at Ottawa’s Elisabeth Bruyere Hospital, lists other symptoms as deterioration in language, words and judgement.

The odd forgetfulness of a word or name that comes back to you later is normal, especially as we age or if we are stressed or sleep deprived. It’s when the memories are not coming back at all that's a signal of a much deeper problem.

Progressive memory loss can lead to a loss of independence. (Getty Images)
Progressive memory loss can lead to a loss of independence. (Getty Images)

“One of the rules of thumb is that if you’re realizing your own memory problem, that’s a good sign because you’re remembering you’re forgetting,” Frank explains in an interview with Yahoo Canada. “It’s more serious if you are not realizing that you’re forgetting, meaning you’re forgetting that you’re forgetting and that can be a sign of something more serious like dementia.”

What to do if you suspect your family member is showing symptoms of dementia

If you notice a change in a family member's ability to recall information, repeating themselves, becoming confused, struggling with their vocabulary or completing tasks that would otherwise seem easy (like shopping or driving to a familiar location), consider accompanying them to an appointment with their family doctor as soon as possible.

A doctor can perform memory tests and others to measure blood pressure and check levels of various chemicals, hormones and vitamins in the body. The family physician can refer the patient to a memory clinic as well, where more testing can be done to determine if the diagnosis is dementia.

Who is the most at risk of developing dementia?

When it comes to dementia there are some risks that we can and can’t control.

Factors that we can’t control that increase our risk of developing dementia are age (one in 20 Canadians over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease), genetics and sex; women have a greater chance of developing dementia than men.

Women are at an increased risk of developing dementia. (Getty Images)
Women are at an increased risk of developing dementia. (Getty Images)

The good news is that there are things we can control that can help minimize our risk of developing dementia. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet are both recommended. Making sure you’re physically active everyday is important and Frank insists exercising your brain is equally as crucial through hobbies and puzzles.

Eliminating smoking and excessive alcohol consumption while adhering to a wholesome diet like the Mediterranean diet can help keep your body and mind in shape.

“Another strategy is to watch out for high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes and to treat those because any factors that prevent heart attack and stroke will also prevent or delay dementia,” Franks says.

Can early detection help prevent or treat dementia?

While there is no cure for dementia, early detection can be beneficial with putting systems in place before these symptoms worsen.

If someone is diagnosed at an earlier stage, they can begin memory treatments and take medications that can help manage the condition. Doctors also suggest putting home care and day programs in place as additional supports.

"Someone who has not been diagnosed may have a crisis of memory loss where they might be missing their medications or not eating due to forgetfulness which would then lead to a sudden health crisis and hospitalization,” Frank says.

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