Dementia isn’t a disease, but rather an umbrella term used to describe a series of problems caused by disorders impacting the brain.
In Australia, dementia is currently the second leading cause of death, impacting 436,366 people each year. Worryingly, it is a condition that can be caused by ageing, with dementia impacting one in 10 people over 60. It also affects 30 per cent of all people over the age of 85.
Associate Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD) Fiona Kumfor spoke to Starts at 60 about some of the commonly asked questions about dementia, treatments and what causes it.
It’s important to know that there are many different types of dementia and as such, different causes. While age, genetics and non-modifiable factors can play a role, there are also lifestyle factors that can impact the risk of developing dementia.
“Things that are impacting on your general health will also impact on your brain health,” Kumfor explained. “Things like having a good diet, exercise, controlling blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking – all of these things that we know are generally bad for your health can also impact on the health of your brain and that can potentially lead to dementia.”
Similarly, people with a higher level of education are at less risk of developing dementia, while a person’s level of cognitive activity can also play a role.
“If someone is remaining quite cognitively engaged then that’s going to reduce their risk of developing dementia,” Kumfor said.
Socioeconomic status can also be a risk factor and those with a lower socioeconomic status are at greater risk of developing dementia. For example, those in the Aboriginal community are three times more likely than other Australians to get dementia.
Certain types of dementia do impact memory, but it’s not the only side effect or symptom people will notice.
“While memory problems are the most common symptom in Alzheimer’s disease, in frontotemporal dementia, people can have problems with communication,” Kumfor noted. “So they might have difficulty in finding words or they might have difficulty in how their speech is.”
Some forms of dementia cause speech to become slurred, while people with other types of dementia have difficulty understanding things. In other cases, dementia can cause behaviour and personality issues and people can find it hard to not only make decisions, but may also behave differently in social situations.
In more extreme cases, people won’t be able to perform tasks they used to be able to complete, while others will withdraw completely.
“People might notice someone is changing in terms of their function in one or more of these areas. If that happens, the first thing to do would to go and see the GP,” Kumfor recommended.
“At the moment, there’s no simple test that you can do to check if someone has dementia or not,” Kumfor said.
Diagnosing dementia is very similar to diagnosing cancer in a sense that there are many different types and the way one variation is diagnosed can differ dramatically from another.
More often than not, it’s a process of elimination and it’s common for a GP to refer a patient to a neurologist or psychologist for further testing. Many health professionals will run a blood test to ensure the symptoms aren’t being caused by an infection or another health problem. MRIs and CT scans may also be used to pick up changes in the brain and a whole suit of different tests can be used.
“Ultimately, the only way we can be 100 per cent sure of what type of dementia someone has is an autopsy, where you actually look at the brain,” Kumfor said. “But you can’t really do a biopsy and take out a part of the brain and see what’s going on, so you’ve got to rely on these other tests.”
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure, but there are medications available that can slow down the progression of some forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s. Having said that, there are always trials and testing that are looking at new treatments and possible cures.
“There’s a lot of people doing research at the moment into dementia and that’s only possible if we have participants who are willing to take part,” Kumfor explained. “While it may not help people today, tomorrow or in the near future, the only way we are going to get a cure or a treatment is to do more research.”
Trials can be viewed on the Dementia Australia website, while others are listed at ftdrg.org. Over the next year, a national website is also set to launch where dementia patients will be able to sign up and match with studies that are relevant to them and their health.
While treatments that delay dementia symptoms are important, there are many services available to help people stay as independent and active as possible after their diagnosis.
“Dementia Australia, for example, has a lot of excellent resources on their website about what’s actually happening, how you can manage these things, what to expect,” Kumfor said. “People want to be able to live at home and that might be things like having someone come in and help with the cleaning or having someone else helping with some of the finances and things they’re having problems with and still being able to be as independent as possible in other ways.”