September is dementia awareness month, and it’s the perfect time to debunk some of the common misconceptions circulating about dementia.
People with dementia lose their memory
While it’s certainly true that people with dementia suffer from episodes of memory loss and often find it hard to remember things, it’s a bit simplistic to say that they lose their memory. While dementia sufferers may find it increasingly difficult to recall recent events, they may have an increased ability to recall events from the past, particularly those associated with strong emotions. In many cases, their older memories may become stronger and more easily accessed. People with dementia won’t forget everything they know, but will likely have trouble recalling where they have put things, how to get places and how to carry out familiar tasks. But they may be able to recall every detail about a past event or how they did something in the past. And they may also be able to remember how to do things they have repeated often in their life, such as driving. It’s important to remember that dementia affects everyone differently, and rates and levels of memory loss may vary widely between people.
We don’t know what causes dementia
On the contrary, in many cases we know exactly what causes dementia. In some cases, it’s quite obvious, such as the well-documented case of rugby league legend, Steve Mortimer, we received a dementia diagnosis likely brought on by repeated blows to his head throughout his football career. We also know that there are over 100 diseases that may cause dementia.
And even if it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint a specific cause for dementia, there are a number of risk factors for the disease, including:
- Increasing age
- High blood pressure, or hypertension
- High cholesterol
- Regular smoking
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Having diabetes
- Being female
- Atherosclerosis (the deposition of fat, cholesterol and other substances into the inner lining of an artery)
- Elevated levels of homocysteine (an amino acid) in the blood
Dementia may not be caused by a single one of these factors, but rather by a combination of many of them.
Dementia is hereditary
It’s common to be worried that you might develop dementia if a parent or relative is suffering from the disease – but there may be no cause for concern. There are different kinds of dementia, some of which are more hereditary than others. Some, including vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia and Alzheimer’s, are very unlikely to be hereditary. In fact, less than 1% of Alzheimer’s cases are hereditary. Frontotemporal dementia is more likely to be inherited, but the chances are still not high. Dementia is frequently not hereditary, and is rather brought on by age and other risk factors such as smoking, cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and disease.
People don’t die from dementia, it just causes brain changes
Many people associate dementia with cognitive decline and behavioural changes, and don’t realise that it is actually the second leading cause of death in Australia.
Young people don’t get dementia
Actually, sadly they sometimes do. Dementia occurs much more regularly in people over the age of 65, but it can happen to anybody. While it’s not super-common, younger onset dementia, as it’s known, is on the rise in Australia. 2021 statistics show an estimated 28,300 people with younger onset dementia – numbers that are projected to rise to more than 41,000 by 2058.
Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia are the same
Alzheimer’s Disease is a very common form of dementia, responsible for up to 70% of dementia diagnoses. It causes memory loss initially, later followed by other symptoms such as depression, apathy, social withdrawal, irritability, aggressiveness and delusions; and is characterised by loss of nerve cells in the brain.
But while Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, you can have dementia without having Alzheimer’s – and many of the other types of dementia have slightly different symptoms to Alzheimer’s.
It will be obvious if you have dementia
It’s usual to think that the signs of dementia, such as memory loss and behavioural changes, will be fairly obvious, but that’s not always the case. Undiagnosed dementia is actually quite common. The symptoms are often quite subtle initially, and people may experience dementia for years without knowing about it. People often try to mask their symptoms as well, so it may be quite a while before their loved ones notice anything is wrong.
People with dementia are purposeless
Just because you have a dementia diagnosis doesn’t mean you can’t undertake some form of work, volunteer work or making a contribution to society. You may just need a little more help and understanding to make this a reality.