When we think about dementia, it is often associated with memory loss, but it can also affect the way we speak, think, feel and behave—and therefore, can have a significant impact on quality of life.

Dementia is the progressive loss of mental functions affecting daily activities as a result of brain disease and brain injuries.

There are various types, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common. With September being World Alzheimer’s month, we’re raising awareness about Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, as of 2016, an estimated 432,000 Canadians 65 or older were living with dementia.

Symptoms

Different physical changes to the brain cause different dementias. Some are reversible, meaning that they can be treated and cured, while others are irreversible, meaning there is no cure. Alzheimer’s disease is irreversible and eventually, fatal. Symptoms worsen over time and include

  • loss of memory—forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information,
  • changes in judgment and reasoning—not recognizing a medical issue needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day,
  • difficulty performing familiar tasks—forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life such as preparing a meal,
  • problems with language—forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context,
  • changes in mood and behaviour—exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered,
  • disorientation in time and space—not knowing what day it is or getting lost in a familiar place, and
  • loss of initiative—losing interest in friends, family or favorite activities.

If you’re concerned about any of these symptoms, see your doctor to ensure a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Risk factors

Three actions: brain injuries, excessive alcohol consumption and exposure to air pollution were recently added to a larger list of avoidable behaviours that professor of psychiatry, Dr. Gill Livingston and his team of 28 researchers at University College London believe to be responsible for about 40 per cent of all dementia cases. Perhaps surprisingly, mid-life hearing loss is at the top of that list, which is why protecting the ears from high noise levels and the use of hearing aids is encouraged. Other risk factors in order of significance are smoking later in life, depression, social isolation, physical inactivity, mid-life hypertension along with mid-life obesity and diabetes. That list comes from 28 leading dementia experts around the world.

Along with protecting our ears, those experts offered up seven additional recommendations to help prevent future cases of dementia.

  • Maintaining systolic blood pressure at or below 130 mm Hg from the age of 40 onward.
  • Reducing exposure to air pollution (not living within 50m metres of busy roads) and second-hand smoke.
  • Preventing head injuries.
  • Limiting weekly alcohol consumption to less than 21 units (two bottles of wine).
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Leading an active life into the mid-years, and perhaps even later.
  • Reducing obesity and diabetes.

It is believed that early diagnosis, healthy living and keeping the brain active can reduce the likelihood or impact of many dementia cases.

Normal aging versus dementia

Have you ever walked into a room and forgot why you were going in there? Or do you have a harder time remembering names or numbers and it seems to be getting worse as you get older?

We may start to notice these things in our early 40s or sooner, but this decline in memory may not be so much of a decline as the result of having so much on our plate, the brain simply can’t retrieve all the information we want when we need it. And year after year, as we add more experiences and information into our memory banks, that ability to recall can decrease due to the increased volume.

With that, according to Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, almost 40 per cent of people over the age of 65 experience some form of memory loss. When there is no underlying medical condition causing this memory loss, it is known as “age-associated memory impairment,” which is considered a part of the normal aging process.

However, brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and other dementias are not a normal part of aging. They are different. If you’re worried about your memory, talk to your family doctor as many other factors can affect it.

Here are some tips from Alzheimer’s Society of Canada for coping with normal age-related memory difficulties:

  • Keep a routine.
  • Organize information (keep details in a calendar or day planner).
  • Put items in the same spot (always put your keys in the same place by the door).
  • Repeat information (repeat names when you meet people).
  • Run through the alphabet in your head to help you remember a word.
  • Make associations (relate new information to things you already know).
  • Involve your senses (if you are a visual learner, visualize an item).
  • Teach others or tell them stories.
  • Get a full night’s sleep.
  • Learn more about what you can do to maintain your brain health and strengthen your memory.

It’s important to know when to see your doctor about memory concerns but it’s equally important to know that forgetting someone’s name doesn’t necessarily mean that you are getting dementia.

More information about dementia, and other health topics, is available on our online wellness platform—Balance®. You can also learn more about dementia at alzheimer.ca.

Balance® is a registered mark of the Canadian Association of Blue Cross Plans, an association of independent Blue Cross plans.

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