What's the difference between simple forgetfulness and the first signs of dementia? We found out how to spot the symptoms and identify if you might be at risk
“What did I come in here for again?” It’s happened to all of us - you stride into a room full of focus and determination to stop dead in your tracks seconds later, as you try to recall the very reason why you went in there in the first place.
Forgetfulness happens to everyone, but repetitive memory loss that progressively worsens over time could be a sign of the early stages of dementia. And with diagnosis of the disease on the rise, it’s becoming more important than ever for us to become better at spotting its symptoms. “The number of people with dementia is increasing,” explains Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK . “Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, and with the population as a whole ageing, more people are entering age brackets where the dementia risk is higher.”
A disease that affects not only those who have it, but also those closest to them, its prevalence is causing a significant strain on the nation’s resources too. “There are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and the cost of dementia to the economy is £26 billion a year - greater than the impact of heart disease and cancer combined,” comments Dr Sancho. “Despite this, dementia research is underfunded compared to other disease areas.”
With cases increasing year on year, what are the best ways to, a) identify if we might be at risk; b) to prevent it and c) treat it? From its symptoms to its treatment, recent research developments to understanding its causes, we found out how to spot the signs to help ensure better detection as early as possible.
What is dementia?
Essentially, dementia is the umbrella terms used to cover a variety of different signs associated with a decline in mental ability. “Dementia is a word that describes a collection of symptoms,” explains Dr Sancho. “Most people tend to think of memory loss, but it also includes others such as communication problems, personality changes, reasoning difficulties and the general loss of skills required to carry out day-to-day tasks.
“There are a number of different types of dementia, the most common being Alzheimer’s disease, but there is also vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, frontotemporal dementia as well as a number of rarer forms.”
What are the known causes?
“The different diseases that cause dementia are the result of different underlying biological processes,” explains Dr Sancho. “What they all have in common though, is that they cause progressive loss of nerve cells in the brain. Everything we do, say or think is the result of signals being sent between these cells, so when they become damaged, the impact on our lives can be profound. We still need to research exactly why some people develop these diseases while other people don’t, but evidence is telling us that a complex mix of lifestyle, genetics and age all combine to play a part.”
What are the symptoms of dementia?
The most well-known sign is memory loss. However, how do we know when sometimes forgetting where you left your keys crosses the line to something more serious? This indeed is the million dollar question. “It is common to experience some changes in our memory as we get older, so it can be difficult to recognise which changes are typical and which could be a sign of dementia,” says Dr Sancho. “While we all might occasionally forget what we went into a room to do, or draw a blank on someone’s name from time to time, repeated and worsening forgetfulness that interferes with daily life could be more of a cause for concern.
“If people are worried that they might be experiencing this kind of difficulty, it’s a good idea for them to speak to their GP. A GP will be able to determine whether there might be a need for further tests from specialists and rule out other conditions that could be causing these problems.”
repeated and worsening forgetfulness that interferes with daily life could be more of a cause for concern
Who’s most at risk?
Although genetics play an active role in terms of early-onset-dementia, these cases are more the exception rather than the rule. “There are a few very rare genetic mutations that, if people inherit, will almost always cause early-onset-dementia,” says Dr Sancho. “There are only a few hundred families worldwide who have these genes, so for most people, age is the biggest risk factor. People with Down’s syndrome are at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and certain medical conditions like diabetes and depression are also associated with an increased risk.”
Although age and genetics are two risk factors that are out of our control, there are a number of lifestyle modifications that can help to maintain a healthy brain as we age. “The best current research suggests that not smoking, eating a balanced diet, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check, staying physically and mentally active and only drinking in moderation can all help to reduce the risk of dementia,” advises Dr Sancho.
What are the best ways to treat it?
Although there isn’t a cure at this moment in time, there are options available to help slow down its development, ranging from medication to more holistic treatments.
“At the moment there are four drugs that may be prescribed to people with Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Dr Sancho. “These drugs work by boosting communication between nerve cells and can temporarily improve or slow the worsening of some symptoms in some people with the disease. Unfortunately, these treatments don’t slow down the underlying processes of the disease or protect nerve cells from damage. Developing a treatment that works in this way, called a ‘disease modifying treatment,’ is a key goal for Alzheimer’s Research UK and dementia researchers the world over.”
In terms of new developments, some exciting news has arisen in the States that makes for incredibly interesting reading around the subject - especially in terms of the importance of lifestyle and diet. “Professor Dale Bredesen, who is a neurologist at UCLA and founding President of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing, presented a ground-breaking paper, ‘Reversal of Cognitive Decline: A Novel Therapeutic Programme’ in 2014,” comments nutritional therapist and Get The Gloss Expert Petronella Ravenshear . “In the paper , he documented the first ever successful reversal of Alzheimer’s disease. His paper is clear, easy to read and deeply exciting.
“According to Bredesen, a holistic and personalised approach needs to be taken not only to address dementia and Alzheimer’s, but to all chronic diseases.” She adds, “Using this programme, Bredesen has successfully reversed Alzheimer’s in a whopping 90% of the patients treated so far.
“Successful treatment means the programme takes not only genes into account but crucially focuses on nutrition and lifestyle. This means sticking to a nutrient dense and low glycaemic diet (no sugar, gluten or refined grains and more fish and vegetables) and:
• Sleep (7-8 hours a night);
• Exercise (at least 30 minutes 6 times a week);
• Intermittent fasting (at least a 12 hour overnight fast);
• Addressing stress with meditation and yoga as well as exercise to stimulate the brain;
• Detoxification – especially of heavy metals like mercury;
• Optimising oral hygiene – brushing and flossing and seeing the hygienist regularly;
• Optimising gut health – fibre and probiotics are key.
“Supplements in the programme include curcumin, ashwagandha, vitamins D and K, B vitamins to improve methylation, and CoQ10 and fish oil as well as antioxidants.
“In a nutshell, protecting ourselves against degenerative brain disease is all about including the things above, which we know to be vital for a healthy life. Eat your greens and eat a fibre-rich, nutrient-dense diet. And keep insulin levels down by avoiding grains and refined sugars and carbohydrates – there is a strong connection between high insulin and degenerative diseases of all kinds, including those that affect the brain.”
Is dementia inevitable as we age?
“Unfortunately there are many misconceptions surrounding dementia,” comments Dr Sancho. “One of the most prevalent seems to be that dementia is a normal or inevitable part of ageing and therefore, there is nothing we can or will be able to do about it. We know that this isn’t true.
"Most older people – even those over 90 – don’t develop dementia. Dementia is the result of physical disease processes that affect the brain and, with sustained investment in research, there’s no reason why scientists won’t be able to develop ways to intervene with these processes just as they have done in other diseases.” Here’s hoping a cure for all types of dementia is something we’ll be able to see within our lifetimes.
Alzheimer’s Research UK is working to energise a movement across society to support, fund and take part in dementia research. For more information please visit www.alzheimersresearchuk.org .