Dementia Aware: what you need to know about dementia myths and misconceptions
Advances in health care and technology has enhanced longevity, and people are healthier and living longer than ever before. This has resulted in an increased prevalence of dementia (Alzheimer’s Disease International & WHO, 2012).
Dementia is highly stigmatized and universally feared. It is often perceived as a normal part of ageing. It is also assumed that people with dementia do not live a normal, happy life and will become unpredictable, aggressive and/or wander. These misconceptions have resulted in many people not seeking diagnosis and treatment. Those already diagnosed with dementia feel shame, fear and embarrassment thus become socially isolated and are reluctant to ask for help.
By promoting a better understanding of dementia, raising public awareness and engagement, we can reduce stigma and discrimination. Furthermore, respecting the human rights of people with dementia, and dispelling these myths and misconceptions, we can foster greater participation, social inclusion and integration for all people with dementia.
Dementia is a normal part of ageing: False
Whilst the number of people with dementia is growing as the world population ages, dementia is not a normal part of the ageing process. Certainly, the prevalence of dementia increases with age, for those over 80 years old, the prevalence is higher than 20%. It continues to climb to over 30% in those aged about 95 years old.
However, dementia can occur in people as young as 30 years old. Many people with Down’s Syndrome develop dementia at a much younger age (approximately 55 years old). Recently, there has been an increased incidence of men (often professional athletes) aged 40-75yrs old being diagnosed with probable CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
Most people with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease usually develop symptoms of the disease in their 40’s and 50’s. A recent study in the U.K. identified 43,000 people under the age of 65 are living with Young Onset Dementia (YOD).
Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease are the same: False
Dementia is a syndrome due to disease of the brain, usually chronic. It is characterised by a progressive, global deterioration in intellect including memory, learning, orientation, language, comprehension and judgement (W.H.O. 2016).
There are over 100 types of dementia of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common. Other types of dementia include vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia and fronto temporal dementia.
Because each dementia affects the brain in different ways, they produce different symptoms. However, the 3 most common symptoms all dementias share include:
- loss of memory
- mood changes, and
- communication problems.
All people with dementia will become agitated/aggressive: False
Dementia affects each person differently and each person will react to events and circumstances in his/her own way. Most people with dementia will experience some behavioral changes e.g. overreaction, hoarding, repetition, disorientation, sundowning. However, not everyone will become agitated and/or aggressive.
Most often behaviors are a result of
- increased confusion and/or
- anxiety and fear due to changes in the brain, and
- frustration from a decline in the person’s ability to process information and communicate his/her needs.
Behavior is usually an expression of an unmet need e.g. thirsty, in pain, fatigued, and it is important to try and understand why the person with dementia is behaving in a particular way.
- All people with dementia will wander and get lost: False
Whilst wandering is quite common amongst people with dementia, not every person with dementia wanders. Wandering can be very worrying for those concerned for the person’s safety and well being. It is important to remember that people with dementia who are wheelchair dependent can also wander and become lost. Like behavior, it is important to understand there is always a reason for the person wandering, including:
- Confusing night with day
- Discomfort or pain
- A response to a dream believing that it has happened in real life
- A change in the environment
- Searching for something or someone from the past e.g. going home, going to work
- People who have been used to walking long distances, or used to walk to work
- Excess energy
- Forget where he/she is going and why e.g. the store and then unable to find way home
- People with dementia can’t function, can’t have a quality life and can’t enjoy activities: False
People with dementia can function, can have quality of life and can enjoy activities; in fact, many people live meaningful, happy, fulfilled lives. Quality of life is possible by making some lifestyle choices:
- Eating right
- Keeping the brain stimulated
- Exercising (overwhelming research suggests that any type of aerobic exercise has a significant and beneficial impact on the brain and the body)
- Participating in development of dementia policies/programs
- A willingness to accept support/help
- Continuing to pursue activities that give joy
- Maintaining a social connection with the community
As the dementia progresses and more help is required, people with dementia can still participate in activities (modified to meet one’s ability and need), they can still feel joy, laugh, smile, give and receive love, they can still be in the moment and share that moment of their life with others.