Dementia is much more than an illness
The slogan smash dementia is both dramatic and provocative but it contains three important messages that cannot be ignored. At first sight ‘smash dementia’ might appear not to make sense, dementia is a syndrome, a collection of symptoms, so how can they be smashed? The key is to think of the challenge of dementia on three different levels, firstly the current suffering caused by dementia, secondly the conditions that give rise to dementia and thirdly the concept that links old age to inevitable cognitive decline.
Smash the suffering caused by dementia
It is important to acknowledge that some people diagnosed with dementia can live long and fulfilling lives, but this is not always the case. In its advanced form dementia can lead to great suffering, both for patients as well as their friends and family. This is the aspect of dementia that requires immediate and urgent action. If you search the academic literature you will find hundreds of thousand of publish studies about or linked to dementia, and yet there is still much that is not known. More worryingly what is known is not always being communicated. Although some general ideas about how to reduce cognitive decline are shared with the wider community, the advice often lacks detail and authority.
“In 2015 over 110,000 people died of Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD) in the US, it is the sixth leading cause of death. Deaths from AD increased by 123% in the fifteen years following 2000. In contrast mortality rates linked to stroke and heart disease fell.”
Smash the conditions for dementia
Dementia is set to become one of the defining health concerns of the 21st century. In the next twenty years we expect to see the total number of people living with dementia worldwide increase three fold to 150 million. The human and economic costs of this scenario are without precedent, huge efforts are needed if society is going to cope, let alone provide appropriate levels of care. We have a conveyor belt with increasing numbers of people in cognitive decline ready to join the ranks of those already diagnosed with dementia. There is almost no information being offered to people in their 40s about what they can do to improve their brain health and lower the risks of serious cognitive impairment. What are we waiting for? We need to attack dementia, not simply upon diagnosis but at the point the syndrome begins its destructive path.
Smash the negative stereotypes of old age
When my late mother was in her early 60s, she started to describe any lapses in memory or cognitive function as ‘senior moments’. Around this time she started to use a computer and demonstrated no observable indications of cognitive decline, and yet she carried and communicated the idea that her brain was starting to become less reliable. I’m concerned that we label older people as inferior generally and that the stigma linked to dementia is a results of negative stereotypes. As a society we don’t value older people enough, we don’t recognize their skills, experience and capacities. And yet there is evidence all around us that people over the age of 65 can make significant and meaningful contributions to society. For example President Trump is 72, Bruce Springsteen 69, Queen Elizabeth II is 92 and the Emperor of Japan, Akihito is 84. This isn’t a denial of the aging process, rather a rejection of the assumption that older people can’t make valuable contributions to society.