Alzheimer's

World Alzheimer’s Day: 21 September

The difference between normal ageing and dementia

Two in three people think that dementia is linked to normal ageing when, in fact, it is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that interferes with a person’s ability to function and do everyday activities.

Dementia expert Debbie Beech – who once headed Alzheimer’s SA’s Gauteng branch and is currently the deputy manager of Rand Aid’s Elphin Lodge retirement village in Edenvale, Gauteng – says that this myth prevents people from getting help.

“While there is no cure for dementia at the moment, early diagnosis and treatment can help people manage their symptoms for longer and better plan for their future,” says Debbie.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, yet Debbie says that 75% of cases go undiagnosed and 40% of cases could be reduced or delayed.

World Alzheimer’s Day is held annually on 21 September to raise awareness about the disease and offer support to those affected by it. This year’s theme, ‘Never too early, never too late’, is centred around risk factors and risk reduction.

Normal ageing vs dementia

“With someone in the world developing dementia every three seconds, knowing the risk factors and the difference between dementia and normal ageing is crucial,” says Debbie.

While normal ageing affects memory, the person remains independent. They might be worried about being forgetful, may sometimes forget the names of acquaintances, may repeat stories and forget parts of an incident, but will recall these when reminded. They will retain the ability to operate familiar appliances, focus and concentrate, put items in their proper place, and distinguish fact from fiction.

With dementia, however, a person needs help with key independent-living activities and may forget entire incidents, even when reminded of them. They might forget the names of loved ones, forget often-used words, repeat themselves constantly, ramble, and socially withdraw. They may also forget how to operate familiar appliances, and get lost or disorientated in familiar territory.

Risk factors

Debbie explains that risk factors for dementia include age, genetics, lifestyle and environment. While you cannot do anything about your family history or age, some risk factors can be controlled. These include smoking, being overweight, and alcohol abuse. Other risk factors are elevated cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, ischemic heart disease, and depression.

According to a report commissioned by Lancet on dementia prevention and care, one in three cases of dementia could be prevented by addressing the risk factors you can control, says Debbie.

Warning signs

If a person has difficulty following the plot of a show or book, battles to find words, has poor short-term memory, general forgetfulness, loses the thread of conversations, is easily distracted, and battles to form new memories or learn new things, they could be in the early stages of dementia.

*Ron Smith Care Centre, which has a specialised dementia wing, is situated on the grounds of Elphin Lodge. It offers full-time and respite care. Contact: 011 882 6296 or 010 534 6595