My father suffered from mixed dementia – vascular dementia and probable Alzheimer’s disease. There are few things that aging baby boomers fear more than a diagnosis of dementia, a terminal disease that robs one of memory and function.

“Dementia is the greatest global challenge for health and social care in the 21st century.”
–The Lancet

Millions of people around the world suffer from dementia. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, someone in the world develops dementia every three seconds. There were an estimated 46.8 million people worldwide living with dementia in 2015 and this number was expected to reach 50 million in 2017. Age is the biggest risk factor. Between the ages of 75 to 84, more than 10 per cent will have some form of dementia. After 85, the rate increases to more than a third.

More than 46.8 million people worldwide are living with dementia. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Mazlov.

What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?

Dementia is not a specific disease; it refers to progressive impairments in memory and other cognitive functions. There are actually about 100 forms of dementia – an umbrella term for conditions in which brain cells die on a large scale – but 60 to 80 per cent of cases are Alzheimer’s disease. A diagnosis of dementia is based on a pattern of signs and symptoms such as the 10 warning signs of dementia, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada:

  1. Memory loss that affects day-to-day abilities
  2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks

    Difficulty performing basic everyday tasks may be an early sign of dementia. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Laura Billings.
  3. Problems with language such as forgetting or using wrong words
  4. Disorientation in time and space
  5. Impaired judgement
  6. Frequent problems with complicated tasks
  7. Misplacing things
  8. Sudden changes in mood and behaviour
  9. Changes in personality
  10. Loss of interest in doing things

Persons affected by dementia can continue to live independently for some time; however, as their condition progresses, they may require increasing levels of care, first within their home and then in a long-term care facility when their symptoms become too difficult to manage by family caregivers.

What the research is saying 

Researchers don’t know the basic mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The most recent drug to help treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s is more than a decade old, and there is still no cure. Between 1998 and 2014, there were 123 potential Alzheimer’s drugs in clinical trials, but only four were approved, according to PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America). However, the failures have helped inform research, and the resulting improved imaging technology has helped researchers better understand how the brain works.

Lifestyle choices that can lower your risk of dementia

It is important to remember that dementia is not a natural consequence of aging. Risk depends, in part, on genetics, but mostly on the lifestyle choices we make.

 There’s no strong evidence that anything prevents Alzheimer’s disease, but a here are some common-sense practices that may help delay memory loss:

  • Eat healthy and nutritious food and avoid common hazards in the typical modern diet such as sugar and salt
  • Control your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and stress
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Stay active physically and mentally – at least 150 minutes of moderate/strenuous exercise per week
  • Avoid harmful toxicants (smoking) and pollutants
  • Be socially engaged with family, friends and community. Avoid social isolation
  • Avoid brain injury
Exercise plays a key role in preventing cognitive decline. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Matt Madd.

Learn about dementia

Become aware and become educated about dementia. It is up to all of us to be proactive and take the necessary steps to protect our loved ones and ourselves. Look after both your body and your mind. I have been there.

My 14-year dementia care journey with my father changed me forever. It was the toughest thing I ever experienced. But I would do it all over again because it enabled him and me to journey from rage, hopelessness and despair to understanding, acceptance and forgiveness – from darkness to light. It allowed me to make a truly profound difference in the life of another. It taught me what unconditional love really is.

Suggested resources

*The Alzheimer Society of Canada