Facing up to Alzheimer’s

The survey was commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Society this past October as part of its Let’s face it! campaign. Over 950 people took part in the survey: all of the participants – nearly an equal number of men and women aged 45-65 – were current caregivers for someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. The survey revealed that:

– Nearly half (44 per cent) of respondents said their loved one waited a year or more after first noticing symptoms before they saw a doctor. Among that group, 16 per cent waited about two years from the time they first noticed symptoms like memory loss, disorientation and personality changes.

– More than half of respondents attributed their loved one’s symptoms to “old age”.  Nearly 40 per cent of respondents also thought their loved one’s symptoms weren’t that serious because they were episodic – that is, the symptoms came and went.

– More than one quarter of sufferers refused to see a doctor about their symptoms when prompted by others and said they would only go if things got worse.

– Fear also played a role. Thirteen per cent also reported delaying because they were afraid Alzheimer’s would be the diagnosis.

Delay in getting help often leads to regret. More than three quarters of respondents (caregivers) said they wished they had gotten a diagnosis sooner.

Know the early warning signs

Knowing the early warning signs is especially crucial now that experts know changes begin in the brain much earlier than previously thought. In fact, recent reports suggest that brain decline can begin at 45. While the risk of Alzheimer’s does increase with age, some forms of the disease can affect adults in their 40s and 50s too. Symptoms can include*:

– Memory loss that affects day-to-day function.

– Difficulty performing familiar tasks.

– Problems with language.

– Disorientation of time and place.

– Poor or decreased judgment.

– Problems with abstract thinking.

– Misplacing things.

– Changes in mood and behaviour.

– Changes in personality.

– Loss of initiative.

(*Source: The Alzheimer’s Society. For more details, see 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s.)

Why early diagnosis is crucial

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are treatment options for the symptoms and to potentially slow the progression of the disease, helping preserve both cognitive functioning and independence.

Preparedness is also a factor with nearly 80 per cent of the caregivers surveyed saying that an early diagnosis would have helped them get their legal and financial affairs in order.

Likewise, 69 per cent of caregivers felt that knowing about the disease early on would help them keep their loved one at home longer and allow him or her to be more involved in decision making.

In addition, the majority of respondents wished they had a better understanding of what their loved one was going through. Sixty two per cent of caregivers reported that an early diagnosis would improve their ability to cope with the disease.

The impact of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in Canada

– According to the 2010 report, Rising Tide: the Impact of Dementia on Canadian Society, more than half a million Canadians were living with dementia – and over 71,000 of them are under age 65.  That number is expected to more than double to 1.1 million people within a generation.

– This year, more than 103,000 people will develop dementia — that’s one person every five minutes. Make that one person every two minutes by 2038 when a predicted 257,000 people will develop dementia.

– The financial impact is staggering too. In 2010, direct health costs, opportunity costs and costs of unpaid care topped $23 billion. Within a generation, that total could top $153 billion per year if nothing changes.

– Right now, one in five Canadians over the age of 45 provides some kind of care to a senior who is dealing with long-term health care issues (including, but not limited to, dementia). One quarter of this number are seniors themselves — and many of them are over age 75.

– In 2010, family members put in 259 million caregiving hours dealing with dementia alone. By 2038, that amount will more than triple to a whopping 756 million hours.

The good news is that new tools for diagnosis and new treatments are in the works and research is resulting in more understanding of the disease – like the link between Alzheimer’s and diabetes, nutrients that may slow brain aging and experimental drugs that could stop the disease’s progression.

For more information about Alzheimer’s and dementia, visit the Alzheimer’s Society website.

To learn more about the survey and early diagnosis, visit Alzheimerletsfaceit.ca.

For more information about brain health and smart aging, visit our new Inside the Lab feature on 50PLUS.com, courtesy of our partners at Baycrest.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Kemter

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