The Future of Dementia
by Monte Schwartz
Everything in the literature regarding the future of dementia seems to point to one obvious (and we might add frightening) conclusion: the number of people with and affected by dementia will increase dramatically.
Today there are about 47 million people worldwide living with dementia, up from 35 million in 2009. Estimates suggest this number will roughly triple by 2050. The risk increases with age, and the ageing population will drive much of the projected increase.
So what exactly is dementia? In spite of its increased prevalence, there are still a lot of misconceptions. For example, dementia in and of itself is not a specific disease. It’s a broad, general term describing symptoms that, according to mayoclinic.org, affects “memory, thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning.” Many people use the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia interchangeably. Alzheimer’s disease is simply the most common form of dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association suggests that Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. (For that, and other valuable information, see the Alzheimer’s Association’s website at alz.org).
Unfortunately, diagnosing a dementia-related disease is usually not a simple or straightforward process. Yes, memory loss if often a component. However, some memory loss is a normal part of ageing and is not indicative of dementia in and of itself. In fact, doctors and other specialists who are involved in its diagnosis sometimes refer to it as a process of elimination—they want to exclude any other possible causes of dementia-related symptoms before moving forward. In short, doctors do make a diagnosis with a fairly high degree of certainty, but only after a broad and complete medical examination.
As with any disease, early detection can be critical. And, as with other diseases, being proactive is not easy. For whatever reason, it seems to be part of our human nature to not seek and get the help that we sometimes so desperately need, particularly when it comes to our healthcare. We’re afraid. We procrastinate. We’re in denial. This is understandable. The prospect of having Alzheimer’s or any dementia-related disease is scary and perhaps we’d rather not hear the bad news. It certainly takes a good bit of courage to step forward and seek the help you or a loved one might need. Yet being proactive can make all the difference. Further, bear in mind that your healthcare provider might find, and be able to treat, other causes of your dementia-related symptoms.
The projected numbers for dementia are obviously daunting. Even so, some researchers see reason for hope. Diagnosis and detection are improving. Some even question the numbers, citing, among other things, potential medical breakthroughs or changes in the future prevalence of risk factors. Finally, while there remains a great deal that we don’t know, research obviously continues and our level of understanding continues to increase.
In closing, we realize that for many families the future is now. Dementia is not some theoretical abstraction or academic exercise of what may come in thirty, forty, or fifty years. It is a living reality. In that case, we strongly recommend tapping into some of the resources found right in our area. It is a lonely and difficult time, but there are excellent sources of help and support.