January is observed as the Alzheimer’s awareness month in Canada. Though the reason behind this choice is unknown, it is in fact an appropriate time to understand more about the disease, its warning signs, and be able to recognize the symptoms in a family member or in oneself.
It is often during Christmas holidays when the entire family comes together that an adult child might notice some changes in their parent, and start wondering whether these changes are part of normal aging or not. Usually these concerns get dismissed by the person and other family members as symptoms of aging, but occasionally they do get discussed in a doctor’s office.
We often hear families say after a family member gets diagnosed with dementia that they did observe some signs several months earlier, but ignored them as signs of aging. Would you be able to differentiate the signs of dementia from those of normal aging? One should know the warning signs of dementia to be able to recognize them in another person.
The most common warning sign of dementia is memory loss. While it is normal for an aging person to forget names or appointments occasionally and remember them later, a person with dementia would repeatedly and frequently forget recent events and recent conversations altogether. They might forget information that they normally would remember, such as their grand child’s name.
Another warning sign of dementia is having difficulty with familiar tasks. A healthy aged person may occasionally need help with settings on a microwave or for recording a television program. A person with dementia would experience difficulty driving to a familiar location, playing a favourite game, or cooking a familiar recipe.
As we age, we are likely to misplace things from time-to-time. While a healthy older person is able to retrace their steps and retrieve the misplaced things, a person with dementia would be unable to retrace their steps and would be frequently losing their things.
It is normal to have difficulty finding the right word at times, and experience ‘tip of the tongue’ states, as we age. A person with dementia is unable to follow or join in a conversation, would use wrong words, and might stop in the middle of a sentence, not knowing how to proceed.
It is normal for an older person to get confused about the day of the week and remember it later. A person with dementia would have difficulty figuring out where they are and how they got there. They can also get lost in a familiar place.
Another common symptom of dementia is mood and behaviour changes. A person with dementia might get unduly anxious, frustrated, or angry, or become very suspicious. A healthy older person might have some set patterns of doing things and might get upset when that pattern or routine is changed.
Though the signs of dementia might resemble the signs of healthy aging at a superficial level, they are more severe in intensity and more frequent in occurrence to affect the individual’s ability to carry on with daily life. When these signs are noticed more frequently and impacting the person’s life they warrant consultation with a physician.
Currently, there are 564,w000 Canadians living with a diagnosis of dementia, and about 43,000 of them are Albertans. About 25,000 new cases are diagnosed every year in Canada. These numbers are expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, in the absence of a cure or a disease-modifying agent.
Approximately 16,000 Canadians diagnosed with dementia are below the age of 65. Therefore, dementia is not just an ‘old-timer’s’ disease.
The most common type of dementia seen is a mix of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Other causes of progressive dementia include the Lewy Body Dementias, and Fronto Temporal dementia. All these types of dementia do not have a cure yet.
Sometimes dementia symptoms could be the result of certain medications, Vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid disease, depression or delirium. The dementia accompanying these situations is completely reversible and the person would regain their original level of functioning, if timely diagnosis and management is carried out.
Therefore, if you see dementia symptoms in a family member or if you are experiencing these symptoms yourself, it is advisable to consult your physician in a timely manner. Early diagnosis and management enables the individual with the disease and their family to cope more efficiently with the disease and have a better quality of life.
Padmaja Genesh, who holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies. A past resident of Red Deer, and a past board member of Red Deer Golden Circle, she is now a Learning Specialist at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org