When you start a discussion about ageing, often the conversation turns to the fact that the majority of us feel no different to the way we felt in our 20s, 30s or 40s. Except for maybe that aching back! Or those pesky joints. Generally, though, we all feel pretty much the same – mentally – as we did in our younger years. Of course, the mirror might tell another story: a lovely, long tale of experience and hard-earned wrinkles! But we feel no different in how we think and remember.
A few more decades pass, and as we enter our 80s and 90s that story might change. We might not feel the same as we did in our youth. We may notice a few changes in the way we think or remember. And it can worry us.

Dementia is now the third largest cause of death in New Zealand. With 50 million people affected globally, there are nearly 10 million new cases reported every year – one every three seconds (Dementia New Zealand).
So, how do we know the difference between a patchy or fading memory that’s a normal part of ageing, or mental deterioration that could be the first signs of dementia?

Talk to Your GP

Like every other part of the journey to maintain good health, your first step should be to discuss your concerns with your GP. General Practitioners can help you complete a checklist of memory problems and concerns and consider a range of medical conditions that may also lead to memory loss, such as depression or anxiety, or even vitamin deficiencies. There can be lots of non-dementia related reasons for memory loss or confusion, so it’s important to rule these out first, with your GP.
If you have ruled out other causes, your GP will look for the most common symptoms in any early diagnosis, including:

  1. Memory loss, especially short-term memory. You may be finding it harder to remember what you did earlier today or yesterday but have no problem recalling events from years ago. Many people become forgetful as they age, for example you might walk into a room and forget what you went in there for. However, a person showing signs of dementia might walk into the room and have trouble remembering whose house they are in, or why. Another example is you might forget your next-door neighbour’s name in conversation. A person showing signs of dementia might forget their neighbour’s name and the context of how they know that person.
  2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks, like housework or cooking. Examples might include finding it hard to remember which order to put clothes on when getting dressed. Or preparing a meal but forgetting to serve it, and then forgetting that you made it.
  3. Disorientation in time and/or place, which means you’re finding it hard to specify what day it is, or where you are, even if you’re at home. We’ve all had the experience of temporarily forgetting where we are going, or missing a turn in the road, but people with dementia find it hard to name their address or find their way home. They may not be able to name the year and may also confuse night and day.
  4. Problems with language, like forgetting words or substituting unusual words that don’t make sense. We all know that feeling when you can’t think of the right word, but people with dementia may forget simple words and have trouble following a conversation.
  5. Changes in mood or behaviour. We all get sad or moody from time to time, but people with dementia may experience rapid and extreme mood swings or irritability for no apparent reason. Sometimes, they may also show less emotion or be unable to be as socially interactive as they have previously.
  6. Withdrawal from social activities or work. People with dementia can experience very low levels of motivation for everyday living. They may become very passive, sitting in front of the television for hours, sleeping more than usual or losing interest in hobbies and activities.
  7. Problems with concentration, planning or organising. You may notice that a person with dementia could be finding it difficult to keep up with paying their bills or make other important decisions. They may forget, postpone, or procrastinate about making decisions or attending important appointments.
  8. Trouble with images or spatial relationships. People with dementia may have trouble reading, judging distances, and seeing some objects in three dimensions. They may also be struggling with colours or contrast.
  9. Poor or decreased judgement may result in someone with dementia making poor decisions for example, wearing inappropriate clothing, such as warm clothes on a hot day. Poor judgement can also extend to driving. It is important for anyone experiencing cognitive decline or who has been diagnosed with dementia to consult with their GP or health professional about their ability to continue driving.
  10. Misplacing things: we all misplace things from time to time, but people with dementia may not only lose their keys or other items but also not remember how to use these items.


Timely Diagnosis

If you or a loved one is having trouble with memory, gets confused or relates to any of the points above, arrange to visit your GP or health professional to discuss your concerns. There are many benefits to receiving a timely diagnosis of dementia, including the ability to take charge of your condition before it worsens. You may have been worried about what is happening to you, and these changes may be making you even more anxious. Putting any diagnosis off delays any help you and your family can receive. Being properly diagnosed with dementia can even be a relief because you and your family now know what’s been causing your problems and can start managing the condition. You can access so many resources and support services to help you and your family, moving forward.

Younger Onset Dementia

Younger Onset Dementia is any form of dementia that occurs in people aged under 65. Whilst younger onset dementia is less common, it can affect people as young as 30. There is no medical difference between dementia that occurs in younger people than people diagnosed with dementia in their 80s or 90s.  The challenges lie in the fact that people diagnosed with dementia who are younger may still be working and raising their own families.

Plan for the Future

There are many benefits to early management of dementia, including the ability to plan for the future. You can discuss early medications with a health specialist and look into early intervention programs that may alleviate symptoms or delay progression. The decisions are all yours if you receive an early diagnosis.

Treatments and Support

There is no cure for dementia, but treatment options are many and varied, and can include drug and non-drug therapies that may help improve your cognition and maximise or boost your quality of life. You can also take the time to investigate home care and other support services available to you and engage these services well ahead of time to make sure you have the help you need when you need it.

Planning ahead is thinking about your future and putting things in place so that your choices will be known and acted on if you cannot express these choices yourself later in life. Planning ahead can include issues related to your finances, lifestyle or health care. Most of us would prefer not to think about becoming unwell or developing dementia, but it is important to have plans in place in case we do. Remember, you are never alone. There are many support services available for people who receive a diagnosis of dementia; you may find other people in the same situation as you, to draw comfort on and share resources with. It can help to talk about your fears and concerns for the future, but at the very least, you will be able to access information to help you understand the disease and to enable you to plan to live the best life ahead of you.