Disease that steals his sunset years
Imagine trying to work harder so you can enjoy a long, relaxed retirement, living a life where you aren’t able to recognize your loved ones or surroundings and where you can’t do basic things like dress and feed yourself without assistance.
That’s what dementia, a degenerative brain disease, does.
Dr Sylvia Mbugua, a consultant neurologist at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, is helping to shed light on this disease.
Is dementia a disease or just the aging process?
Dementia is a neurological disease characterized by deterioration in memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to make decisions and perform daily activities. Although dementia mainly affects older people, it is not part of normal aging. “Precocious dementia” is rare but can occur.
Are dementia and Alzheimer’s disease the same thing?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in people over the age of 65 and contributes to approximately 60-70% of dementia cases. Dementia can also result from a variety of conditions, including chronic alcoholism, stroke, Wilson’s disease, herpes virus and HIV infections, thyroid disease, and vitamin deficiencies.
What are the risk factors?
Although age is the strongest known risk factor for dementia, some people will develop dementia, while others will live to a ripe old age with a mind as sharp as a 20-year-old. Several factors determine your risk of developing dementia: age, genetic factors, certain health factors and your lifestyle. If you have a family history of dementia, you are at a higher risk of developing dementia over time.
High blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes are also risk factors for dementia. Numerous studies have shown that people with one of these conditions during their 40s are about twice as likely to develop dementia later in life. If you have more than one of these conditions, your risk is even higher. Smoking and alcohol also put you at risk.
What can be done to reduce the risk?
There’s nothing you can do about aging or your genes, but you can do something about your health. Keeping your weight in the proper range, managing blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar at healthy levels are important for your brain. Avoid head injuries, smoking and depression.
Regular exercise as well as stimulating your brain through cognitive, mental and social activities are associated with a lower risk of dementia. A healthy diet low in red meat and high in omega 3 fatty acids, coconut and olive oil, plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes and vitamin E is recommended.
How to diagnose dementia?
Unfortunately, there is no single test to determine if someone has dementia. Doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia based on a careful medical history, physical exam, MRI scans, and characteristic changes in thinking, daily functions, and behavior associated with each kind.
Lab tests and MRI imaging are also done to rule out other causes of dementia that could be treated, especially in younger patients.
What are the symptoms?
Although early signs vary, common symptoms include progressive forgetfulness, loss of track of time, and inability to recognize familiar places.
As dementia progresses to the intermediate stage, the signs and symptoms become clearer and more restrictive. These include forgetting recent events and people’s names, getting lost at home, having increasing difficulty communicating, needing help with personal care, changing behavior, including wandering and repeated questioning.
The advanced stage of dementia is one of almost total dependence and inactivity.
Is the condition treatable?
For most progressive dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure or treatment that stops its progression. But, there are drug treatments that can temporarily slow its progression.
Once the neurologist has made a diagnosis, he will advise on medications that can help the patient. Dementia resulting from infections, thyroid problems and vitamin deficiency can be reversed.