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Dementia is a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. But how can you tell if you are just having a memory lapse or if there may be something more sinister at play?

As anyone will tell you, “senior moments” are not solely the preserve of those aged 65 or over.

Distracted stay-at-home parents can be so busy cooking, cleaning and running after little ones that, from time to time, they may get confused over when and where they last had their car keys.

Stressed office workers may be so consumed by an upcoming meeting that they forget to pick up their phone when running out the door, and teenagers may be so focused on perfecting a new trick on their skateboard that they forget to work on their end-of-year geography assignment due before the end of the week.

While varying both in degrees of seriousness and embarrassment, everybody at some point in their life will experience an unfortunate memory failure.

But while occasional memory lapses and forgetfulness are normal, and are likely to occur more frequently as we age, when a loved one’s forgetfulness starts to interfere with their normal social or working life, then it may be time to seek some help.

What is mild cognitive impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition that causes a slight but noticeable decline in memory or other thinking skills such as language, attention and processing visual and spatial information.

Typically, these changes are serious enough to be noticed by the individuals experiencing them and/or by family and close friends, although they will generally not prevent people from going about their daily lives and activities.

Receiving a MCI diagnosis does not necessarily mean that a person will go on to develop dementia. Around 40% of people diagnosed with MCI recover normal cognitive function (although they do have a higher risk of developing dementia later on), and a further 20-30% do not decline further at all.

MCI is a relatively new concept and more research is needed to understand the relation between MCI and later development of dementia.

What is dementia?

Despite what is commonly assumed, dementia is not one specific disease, but instead is the umbrella term for a number of neurological conditions.

While there are over 100 diseases that can cause dementia, the most common of these include Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.

Although the risk of getting dementia increases as we age, people in their 40s and 50s can also have dementia. The term ‘younger onset dementia’ is used to describe any form of dementia diagnosed in people under the age of 65.

Who is most at risk of a dementia diagnosis?

Dementia Australia CEO Maree McCabe says age is the biggest risk factor for dementia. Despite this, it is important to note that dementia is not a normal part of ageing and most older people do not develop dementia, she says.

“The risk of developing dementia may also be increased if a parent or grandparent has developed dementia. It is however also important to note that most forms of dementia are not inherited.”

Studies are increasingly indicating lifestyle choices may be more of a contributing factor than someone having dementia in their family. This is because dementia risk has been shown to be lowest in people who practice healthy living behaviours in mid-life. These behaviours include regular physical exercise, not smoking, drinking alcohol only in moderation (if at all), and maintaining a healthy diet and weight.

How common is dementia?

Maree says in 2020, there is an estimated 459,000 Australians living with dementia. People with dementia account for more than half of all residents in residential aged care facilities. In 2020, it is estimated that almost 1.6 million people in Australia are involved in the care of someone living with dementia.

The 2020 Dementia Australia Prevalence Data reveals that without a medical breakthrough, the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to 590,000 by 2028 and 1,076,000 by 2058.

In 2018, dementia cost Australia more than $15 billion. By 2025, the total cost of dementia is predicted to increase to more than $18.7 billion in today’s dollars, and by 2056, to more than $36.8 billion.

What are the most common signs of dementia?

The early signs of dementia are very subtle and may not be immediately obvious. Despite this, there is a checklist of common signs of dementia, including:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Repetitive behaviours
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Withdrawing from social contact
  • Confusion about time and place
  • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Loss of initiative and apathy
  • Poor or decreased judgement
  • Language problems
  • Depression, which may be present in early stages of dementia
  • Other behavioural changes

It’s important to acknowledge that early symptoms also vary across individuals depending on the type of dementia.

Is there a test for dementia?

While there are some common cognitive tests used to help diagnose dementia, the first step is to be assessed by your general practitioner.

GP assessments usually include a discussion about your personal medical history, physical and/or laboratory tests, and cognitive tests such as the mini-mental status examination – a short test that assesses skills such as reading, writing, orientation and short-term memory.

Findings from a variety of sources and tests must be pooled before a diagnosis can be made, and the process can be complex and time consuming.

Combined, all tests and assessments are designed to help determine whether someone has dementia or not.

What can be done to reduce the risk of developing dementia?

There are many things you can do to help reduce the risk of developing dementia. Being physically active and mentally challenging your brain have been shown to help key a dementia diagnosis at bay, as has following a healthy diet, being socially active, limiting the amount you drink and being a non-smoker.

What are some of the legal impacts of a dementia diagnosis?

A dementia diagnosis may have an impact on your legal rights and responsibilities when it comes to different areas of life such as driving, work, superannuation and voting in elections.

This is because Australian legislation is based on the international principle of “presumption of capacity”. This means that you are assumed to have capacity to make your own decisions unless someone can prove that you do not.

The legislation regarding a person’s capacity to make their own decisions differs across each State or Territory.

Capacity is decision-specific so even if you have been diagnosed with dementia, you may still have capacity to make all or at least some of your own decisions, especially if you have been diagnosed with early dementia.

Decision-making capacity may also fluctuate over time and depend on the context such as the time of day, location, noise, stress or anxiety levels, medication, or infection.

It is important for people living with dementia, their carers and their families to be across any impacts dementia may have on legal rights and responsibilities.

A dementia diagnosis may also be a time to review or establish plans regarding management of finances, advanced care directives, power of attorney, enduring guardianship and wills.

What’s the good news?

A person living with dementia is still the same person they were before receiving a diagnosis, Maree says.

“Depending on the level of their abilities and with the right support, people living with dementia can continue to live a fulfilling life where they contribute to their community, achieve goals, enjoy life’s pleasures, and in many circumstances, live independently.”

People living with dementia contribute to our community every day, including helping to create the diverse communities we all enjoy living in, she says.

To help ensure all needs are addressed, Freedom Care Communities ensure all residents have a personalised care plan for their assessed care needs, as well as an individual case manager. They also offer diversional therapy programs for dementia and memory loss.

Click below to learn more about the care and support available at Freedom Care Communities.

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In addition, there is lots of support available for the family, friends and carers of people living with dementia, including services offered by Dementia Australia, she says.

Services offered through Dementia Australia include education, counselling, access to support services and programs to help maintain your health and wellbeing and support to assist you support the person living with dementia.

For more information on what is available for carers, families and friends of people living with dementia, call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

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