“They must be going senile.”
Many of us have heard some version of this phrase throughout our lives. It was often used to imply that someone, usually an older adult, was losing his or her cognitive faculties and is now commonly referred to as dementia. The National Institute on Aging defines dementia as a loss of thinking, remembering, and reasoning skills that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. According to the World Health Organization, there are 50 million people with dementia worldwide with almost 10 million new cases emerging every year. In the United States alone, there are an estimated 5 million people living with dementia and due to an aging American population, this number is expected to rise. Because the condition is so prevalent, there’s a lot of misinformation about it. Below, we bust the five of most common myths surrounding dementia.
Myth #1: Alzheimer’s and dementia are the same things.
These terms are often used interchangeably but there are differences between them. Dementia is an umbrella term for a change in one’s ability to think, recall, or reason. Under this umbrella are specific causes that explain dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Other causes and types of dementia are vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and frontotemporal dementia. A doctor can help determine the underlying cause of any severe memory problems, aiding in prognosis and treatment options.
Myth #2: Dementia is an inevitable part of aging.
Although older age is a risk factor for having dementia, the condition is not a natural part of aging. In fact, some of our mental capabilities can improve or maintain with age, such as abilities in verbal reasoning, vocabulary, and reading. If you or a loved one is experiencing noticeable memory loss or memory-related issues, or you believe you are at risk for developing dementia, seek a medical evaluation and rule out other causes of cognitive impairment, such as medication interactions or poor sleep.
My #3: Only elderly people get dementia.
Just as getting older doesn’t mean you’ll get dementia, being young doesn’t mean you won’t. Although it is rare, there have been cases of people with dementia in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Signs of dementia in younger populations are similar to those of older populations, including severe memory problems, challenges with planning and problem solving, difficulty completing tasks, new problems with speaking or writing, and confusion concerning areas of time and place. It is important to determine the underlying cause. In some cases, the progression of the disease can be slowed and with early diagnosis and treatment.
Myth #4: The risk of developing dementia cannot be reduced.
While some forms of dementia share a genetic component for which there’s an increased risk, you will not necessarily get dementia just because your parent or grandparent had it. There are lifestyle modifications that can help to reduce your risk. For example, some factors that increase the chances of developing dementia are obesity, illness, high blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, isolation, unhealthy life habits, and poor diet. To keep your brain healthy, keep your heart healthy. Make an effort to get regular exercise, eat nutritious food, see your doctor regularly to control illnesses, build your social network, and continue to challenge your brain by learning new activities throughout your life.
Myth #5: Quality of life is non-existent with dementia.
People with dementia can live meaningful lives. With mild cases of dementia, little to no changes in independence may be required. If the cause of dementia is degenerative, those afflicted and their caregivers will need to make adjustments over time. Medications, such as those for treating Alzheimer’s, cannot currently prevent the disease from progressing but can help some people manage their symptoms. If you are a caregiver, you can help your loved one with dementia to improve their quality of life. Music and art remain areas that many with dementia can still participate and promote self-expression. Physical activity can help those with dementia to remain self-sufficient in areas of self-bathing and dressing. Offer them choices throughout the day, such as which shirt to wear, to promote autonomy. Try to remain patient and accommodating of any growing memory problems.
Dementia remains one of the primary causes of disability and increased dependency of adults aged 65 and older. It also remains widely misunderstood and often comes with a stigma. We hope that by addressing these five common myths we have helped you to better understand dementia—what it is as well as what it isn’t. Your doctor, support groups, and organizations such as the Dementia Society of America and ALCA (Aging Life Care Association) are excellent resources for more information.
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