Did you know that 55,000 people are living with dementia in Ireland and each year over 4,000 people develop dementia? It’s hard to believe but that’s at least 11 people every single day – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, neighbours and friends. In fact, the number of people with dementia in this country is expected to more than double over the next 20 years – from 55,000 today to 113,000 by 2036.
Despite many of us knowing someone living with dementia, very few people really comprehend it. According to the Health Service Executive, only one in four Irish people say they have a good understanding of dementia.
Dementia is caused by a number of diseases that damage the nerve cells in the brain. Common symptoms may include difficulties with thinking and communicating, problem-solving and carrying out everyday tasks, as well as issues with memory loss and changes in mood and behaviour.
The effects of dementia vary from person to person, with everyone experiencing it differently. Unfortunately, it is progressive and a person’s function generally declines over time. It is important to remember, however, that although the risk of dementia increases with age, the vast majority of older people do not develop dementia.
There are at least 400 different types of dementia with the most common types being Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Many readers will have come across someone with Alzheimer’s Disease, which accounts for the majority of cases in older people. It often develops slowly, over several years, and in the early stages can be difficult to distinguish from the mild forgetfulness which can be a normal part of aging.
Early signs usually include difficulty in remembering recent events. People may also experience trouble coming up with the right words, figuring out problems or making decisions. Judging distance and finding the way to familiar places may also be affected.
The development of Alzheimer’s disease is associated with an abnormal protein that causes damage to the nerve cells in the brain, resulting in a breakdown in communication between brain cells.
Another common type of dementia is Vascular Dementia, but is not as well known. It happens when the blood supply to the brain reduces because of narrowing or blockages in blood vessels and brain cells becoming damaged. It can occur suddenly, for example, following a stroke affecting major blood vessels, or it can occur more gradually and slowly over several years, if smaller and deeper blood vessels are affected. This may be more likely to occur if there is high blood pressure, high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes.
The signs and symptoms can include memory loss, disorientation and problems with communication and changes in how the person walks. More specific symptoms differ depending on which part of the brain is affected. These may include problems with planning and concentrating, or short periods of intense confusion.
Early Onset Dementia
Although most people who develop dementia are over 65, it can affect younger people too. In fact, one in 10 people diagnosed with dementia in Ireland are under 65. Most people with early/younger onset dementia are in their 40s or 50s.
People who are diagnosed may have a strong family history of dementia and occasionally genetics may have a role in the development of their condition. Younger onset dementia can also affect those with another health condition such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, HIV or AIDS.
Living Well with Dementia
There is currently no cure but there are ways to help people with dementia and their families through medical treatment, as well as a range of community supports, such as home care packages, and practical adjustments and adaptations to the person’s life and home.
People can live well with dementia and a positive outlook is really important, as is support from family, friends and the wider community.
Remember, everyone can make a difference in supporting people to live well with dementia. By showing understanding and empathy, people can help to bring dementia out of the shadows and into the open.
Just a small thing such as asking how someone is doing, taking a few minutes to chat, calling by for a cuppa, or giving someone the time to collect their thoughts, can make a big difference and help combat the stigma and isolation people with dementia sometimes experience.
This feature is the first in a series of “Dementia: Understand Together” articles. Next week we expose some of the myths surrounding dementia. For more information, Freephone 1800 341 341 or visit www.understandtogether.ie
“Focus on Dementia” is an initiative of the Dementia: Understand Together campaign.
Dementia: Understand Together is a public support, awareness and information campaign. It aims to inspire people from all sections of society to stand together with the 500,000 Irish people whose families have been affected by dementia.