Pakistan is expected to become the third most populous country in the world in less than 40 years with a sizeable aging population. It is estimated that 36 million Pakistanis will be well over 50 years of age by that time and at possible risk of developing dementia, a progressive disease which results in severe decline in a person’s mental ability interfering with daily life. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia which usually starts around 60 years of age and is characterized by short term memory problems; memories from the remote past are usually spared.
Experts from various fields including those from the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology at Aga Khan University stressed that an urgent need exists to raise awareness about the disease. They were speaking at an awareness session held to mark World Alzheimer’s Day organized at Aga Khan University. This year’s theme, Dementia: Can we reduce the risk? focuses on developing lifestyle changes which would enhance brain health in the long run.
“It is not a curable disease, but the choices made in midlife can help keep the brain healthy as you age. Research shows that those who adopt a ‘brain healthy’ lifestyle have a reduced risk of dementia in later life,” said Dr Qurat ul ain Khan, assistant professor, department of psychiatry.
Everyone forgets things once in a while and this may happen a little bit more often in elderly people however if it starts affecting the ability to function in day to day life and stops people from doing things that they were able to do before then this may not be normal aging.
People with dementia may also develop psychiatric problems and it is important to recognize these conditions and seek help.
According to Dr Mahmood Rehman, lecturer, department of psychiatry, “Depression, anxiety, suspiciousness, agitation, hallucinations and sleep difficulties are frequent complications and may cause disruption and caregiver distress; however they can be effectively treated with medication or behavioural modification along with educating the family.” He also emphasized the benefit of interventions such as being respectful to the patient, simplifying tasks, using simple words to communicate and keeping them busy with healthy activities which stimulate learning.
Along with memory and behavioural problems, certain physical or neurological symptoms may appear as dementia progresses.
“People may have difficulty walking, swallowing, controlling urine or bowel and may eventually become unresponsive and bed bound,” mentioned Dr Saad Shafqat, professor and head of neurology section, department of medicine. “In advanced stages of the disease they may need specialized medical and nursing care,” he further added.
The need for resources such as nursing homes, day care facilities and support groups were also discussed. Currently there is no cure available for the disease and prevention through a variety of means such as adopting healthy life style, staying physically and mentally active, eating well and avoiding smoking was emphasized. Maintaining good social interaction with family and friends, keeping busy with stimulating activities such as reading, writing, engaging in hobbies and avoiding depression are also important in the fight against dementia.
Experts also asserted the importance of educating families about the disease and how it develops. Uncontrolled hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, prior head injuries and some childhood conditions such as Down’s syndrome seem to increase the risk of dementia. Risk increases with age and the disease is found to be more prevalent in women.