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World Alzheimer’s Day: understanding a growing condition

September marks the seventh annual World Alzheimer’s Month. Today is the focal point for raising awareness of an oft-misunderstood condition in need of de-stigmatisation, so those affected can tackle the challenges with the full support of their community.

An estimated 55,000 people are living with dementia in Ireland, with that figure expected to more than double by 2036 due to our ageing population. More than half a million Irish families have a close relation with dementia. Despite this, just 1 in 4 people understand what it is.

Dementia is an umbrella term for various conditions that damage the brain, impairing your memory and ability to think, speak and perform previously undemanding everyday tasks.

Alzheimer’s Disease falls under this category, and is the most common cause of dementia, thought to be behind over half of cases.

Understanding Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s is associated with a build-up of protein on the brain, which forms disruptive plaque and tangles. The root cause is not completely understood, though brain inflammation, family history, ageing, untreated depression, cardiovascular issues and lifestyle can increase your risk of developing it.

It is a condition that becomes more pronounced and noticeable over time. 

The disease is most common in the over-65s and risk increases with age. Early-onset Alzheimer’s can, however, develop in middle age.

Recognising symptoms

Slight memory problems will often surface, as faces, names and recent events become difficult to recall. Someone developing Alzheimer’s may start asking the same questions repeatedly. Conversations may become more stilted or difficult to follow, with the right words escaping them. 

Dealing with numbers can become more arduous, fuelling anxiety in shopping situations. A multitude of tasks and activities that involve organisation or planning will become tougher, causing the person to potentially become withdrawn. There may be an accompanying change in mood.

If any of these symptoms are affecting you or a loved one, it’s important to take action. Touching base with your GP is advisable, if only to alleviate concerns. Due to the nature of the symptoms and subtle changes, some people may not be aware they have an issue. If you are concerned for a loved one, gently suggest they have a check-up and offer to attend with them for support.

Diagnosis

Following a discussion about the situation, a GP will carry out a physical examination and possibly organise blood tests. They may ask the patient to complete some memory and thinking tasks to evaluate how the brain is functioning. From there, it may be necessary for a specialist referral for additional assessment.

Preventative measures

Taking care of your heart is a good start, as the disease linked to cardiovascular problems. Avoiding tobacco, limiting alcohol consumption, eating a balanced diet that includes five daily portions of fruit and vegetables and exercising for at least 30 minutes five times per week should all help.

Regular health tests, for things such as blood pressure, pulse or stress, can keep you on track.

Some evidence suggests that people who remain mentally and socially active are less likely to suffer from dementia. Everything from learning a language or musical instrument to getting involved with team sports or community volunteering could be beneficial. ‘Brain training’ games are shown to increase cognition in the short-term, though it is unclear whether this can prevent dementia itself. Additional information and support can be found at Alzheimer.ie

For more articles on the topic of mental health, click here.