Follow our tips on ways to help dementia patients, and simple ways to reduce the risk of developing the disease yourself.
There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025 and 2 million by 2051. This is, in part, to do with our larger aging population – 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have been diagnosed with the condition. But it's not something which only affects old people. Early onset Alzheimer's can begin in middle age (or earlier) and caring for elderly relatives affects everyone in the family, including young grandchildren.
High profile cases include the late Sir Terry Pratchett, actress Lynda Bellingham, football legend Jimmy Hill, novelist Iris Murdoch and Hollywood stars Rita Hayworth and James Stuart, among scores of others.
In the UK the Alzheimer's Society is the main organisation raising awareness of this devastating illness, but it is by no means the only body working towards a solution. Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI) is a global organisation dedicated to raising awareness about the disease, with September marked annually as World Alzheimer’s Month. This year, 2019, will mark the 8th global World Alzheimer’s Month, an international campaign to raise awareness and challenge the stigma that surrounds dementia.
What is dementia?
The word is use to describe a group of symptoms, such as memory loss, confusion, mood changes and general difficulty with day-to-day tasks. It’s caused by a number of things – Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.
Alzheimer's disease, so-named widely in 1910 after the doctor who first described it (German psychiatrist Aloysius Alzheimer, 1864-1915), is a physical disease that affects the brain.
During the course of the disease, proteins build up in the brain to form structures called 'plaques' and 'tangles', which leads to a loss of connection between nerve cells, and eventually to the death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue.
People with Alzheimer's also have a shortage of some important chemicals in their brain which help to transmit signals. When there is a shortage of them, the signals are not transmitted as effectively.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease
The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are generally mild to start with, but they get worse over time and start to interfere with daily life.
Ten early symptoms of dementia:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty in performing everyday tasks
- Problems with language
- Disorientation to time and place
- Poor or decreased judgment
- Problems with keeping track of things
- Misplacing things
- Changes in mood or behaviour
- Changes in personality
- Loss of initiative
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Many people affected feel like the rest of society doesn’t understand what it’s like to develop and live with this kind of condition. The charity Dementia Friends asks volunteers to learn about dementia so they can support those in their community who are struggling, and spread awareness more generally.
This doesn’t have to include big gestures or be particularly time consuming. You could spend some time with someone with dementia who lives close to you, make sure to have regular conversations on the topic or wear a badge to raise awareness. Becoming a Dementia Friend might just arm you with the knowledge to be more patient in a shop queue.
How do I join Dementia Friends?
Joining is really simple, and can be carried out online or in person.
Online, you just give your name, email and where you’re joining from – England, Wales, Scotland, Isle of Man/Guernsey, Northern Ireland or outside the UK – then watch a five minute video featuring several people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. That’s it – you’re ready to do your bit for your community!
Joining in-person is more-in depth, offering a friendly 45-minute interactive session in your area.
How brain training can help
While the thought of developing dementia may be frightening, it doesn’t help your wellbeing to worry about it day-to-day. Though the link with dementia hasn’t been proven, some studies have found that cognitive training can boost your memory and help you think more clearly, especially as you age.
We’ve collected some of our favourite intellectual exercises, as well as other ways you can keep your brain and body healthy.
Brain training exercises: get gaming
There are many brain training games on the market, with apps like Elevate and Luminosity proving the most popular. Find one you like and you’ll have fun, and likely see some cognitive benefits.
If you’d like to help with research while you’re at it, try the Alzheimer’s Society’s GameChanger. Since September 2018, they’ve been asking people without dementia to spare five minutes a day, every day, for one month, to play fun, free brain games.
These games don’t have to be particularly techy. Pick up a paper to try your hand at a Sudoku puzzle, which can sharpen your thinking and prolong your brain’s health.
Brain training: try a new language
Don’t be shy. Learning a new language is tough going, but has its rewards. You’ll be able to order your favourite dinner on your next holiday, and will also get some brain stimulation in for better brain function and concentration as you age.
Brain training: pick up an instrument
Playing music is thought to help your brain more than any other activity. It actually changes the structure of the brain for the better, improving long-term memory especially boosting brain development children. Singing in a group or choir also does wonders for your wellbeing.
Brain training: play your favourite board or card game – or learn a new one
From solo chess to a big family game of Monopoly – board games can boost your cognitive thinking and improve decision making skills.
Health changes that reduce dementia risks: stay active
The Alzheimer’s Society recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (brisk walking) each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (jogging) alongside things that strengthen your muscles, like push-ups, sit-ups or even just digging in the garden. Moving regularly is also great for the rest of your body and your mental wellbeing.
Reduce dementia risks: eat healthily
A balanced diet – your standard five fruit and vegetable portions daily, alongside at least two portions of good protein a week, plenty of water and less saturated fat and sugar – can reduce your risk of dementia, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and heart disease.
Reduce dementia risks: don’t smoke and drink less alcohol
Smoking definitely increasing your risk of dementia, as well as type 2 diabetes, stroke, lung and other cancers.
Too much alcohol increases your risk of developing dementia – try to stick to fewer than 14 units a week.
Reduce dementia risks: do a mid-life health check
Health problems like depression, hearing loss or lack of sleep can all increase your risk of dementia. Taking care of your health and seeing your GP regularly – at any age – could help nip these issues in the bud.