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Dementia: how to prevent it and recognise it

Columnist: Mike Serebrennik

Jim looked at his watch again. His dad was half-an-hour late for lunch, which he confirmed just yesterday.

Two weeks ago, Jim’s dad missed a family dinner. Previously, this did not happen — Jim’s dad used to pride himself on punctuality.

As a matter of fact, family meals were not the only things with which Jim’s dad had trouble lately. He’s fallen behind on some bills and made a few errors while balancing his chequebook.

In conversation, he’s been occasionally struggling to find the right word, and sometimes had difficulty figuring out what day of the week it was. Also, he stopped attending card games with his friends, which he used to eagerly anticipate.

An occasional memory lapse or episode of inattention could happen to anyone. Who hasn’t missed an appointment or forgot the day of the week? However, when older adults develop forgetfulness and difficulty with routine tasks, or when these become more pronounced or more common, it may be time to become concerned and see a doctor.

Dementia is not a normal part of ageing, nor is it a specific disease. Rather, it is a set of symptoms that includes a decline in memory and other thinking skills severe enough to interfere with daily life.

There can be many causes, the most common one being Alzheimer’s disease. In order to figure out whether dementia is present, and to determine what kind of dementia it is, a doctor may take medical history, do a physical examination and order some laboratory and medical imaging tests.

Many causes of dementia are treatable. Some disorders that cause dementia are reversible, such as thyroid problems or vitamin deficiency. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, medications are available to lessen its symptoms.

There is also hope for the future. Scientific research has identified several targets in the Alzheimer’s disease process. Eventually, drugs aimed at these targets may slow down, stop or even reverse the course of the illness.

Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Most individuals with the disease are age 65 or older. Those who have a parent or a sibling with Alzheimer’s are also more likely to develop the disease. While there is nothing we can do about getting older or about family history, there are actions we can take to lower the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

Researchers suspect a strong connection between serious head injury and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later. This is especially likely when trauma happens multiple times or results in loss of consciousness. Protect your brain by buckling your seatbelt, wearing your helmet when participating in sports, or riding a scooter and avoiding falls.

Growing evidence suggests that a healthy brain needs a healthy body. Heart and blood vessel health is particularly important. The brain is nourished by one of the body’s richest networks of blood vessels. Brain cells use about 20 per cent of the entire blood flow the heart supplies, and consumes about the same portion of the food and oxygen the blood carries.

Various disorders that damage the heart and blood vessels can increase the chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia. These conditions include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Talk to your doctor and develop a plan to preserve and monitor your heart and vascular health. Should a problem arise, have it treated promptly.

Scientists also suggest that steps aimed at overall health and wellbeing may help keep your brain and your body fit. Actions taken towards improving general health may even offer some protection against developing Alzheimer’s or related disorders.

Try to keep excess weight off, avoid tobacco products, do not drink alcohol in excess, stay socially connected and exercise both your body and mind. If you or your loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, you are not alone. Action on Alzheimer’s and Dementia offers a support group. Contact Elizabeth Stewart on 538-5494 or alzbermuda@yahoo.com. A wealth of information is also available on the Alzheimer’s Association website: www.alz.org.

• Dr Serebrennik is a physician by training and now a full-time entrepreneur, investor and writer. He is also co-founder of Lighthouse Medical Supplies, Ltd, a local company dedicated to helping healthcare providers cope with the increasingly competitive and cost-conscious practice environment.