A 63-year-old woman stands beside her bed holding her favourite shirt. Confusion clouds her gaze as she looks around the room. For a moment, she cannot recall why she is standing there or where she has planned to go.
Her bouts of forgetfulness are initially brushed off as ‘just part of the ageing process’. However, a few years later, she is diagnosed with a form of dementia.
Over this time, her symptoms have become more prevalent, affecting her day-to-day functioning.
Scenarios like this occur all too often.
The World Health Organisation reports that more than 55 million people are living with dementia worldwide. In Australia, it’s the leading cause of death in women, and the second-highest for men. There is still no known cure.
The umbrella term ‘dementia’ encompasses a range of illnesses that cause a progressive decline in brain functioning. The four main types are vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, Frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
It is typical for changes seen in individuals during the onset of dementia to be misinterpreted as signs of depression, stress, sleep issues and ‘normal ageing’, which is why many people do not receive a diagnosis until further along in their disease progression.
While not all cases of dementia can be prevented, there is now scientific research to suggest that some simple lifestyle adjustments can greatly reduce the likelihood of developing it.
Dr Sophie Andrews, clinical neuropsychologist and Senior Research Fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Thompson Institute, says that studies show around 40 per cent of dementia risk is ‘modifiable’: that is, could be prevented or delayed by changes to lifestyle and health.
“There are a large number of lifestyle choices that can boost brain health, like a balanced diet, regular physical activity, good-quality sleep, not smoking, and maintaining mental health via mindfulness is also important,” she says.
In a recent study using brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Dr Andrews investigated the brains of healthy individuals and found a correlation between a lower risk of dementia and a healthier lifestyle – specifically observing that people who maintained a healthier lifestyle had larger white matter tracts in their brains compared with those with a higher risk of dementia.
White matter tracts are essentially the brain’s ‘superhighways’ or pathways that enable communication between different regions of the brain. Having larger and healthier white matter tracts suggests better connectivity within the brain’s networks.
“So, potentially years or even decades prior to any sign of dementia, we can see evidence in the brain of the benefits of a healthier lifestyle,” Dr Andrews says.
Although dementia can be multifaceted and typically involves various contributing elements, some forms of dementia are more likely to develop in individuals with a family history.
Woombye resident Kelly Monos admits she didn’t know much about dementia until it impacted her family directly. In 2012, her 52-year-old father was diagnosed with early onset frontotemporal dementia (FTP) and continued to battle the disease for nine years before he died.
“It really knocked us and we [the family] had a steep learning curve,” she says. “So many people who knew Dad or heard about how young he was were surprised – they think it’s an‘old person’ disease.”
Mrs Monos says that in hindsight, she can trace back some warning signs up to 10 years prior to his FTP diagnosis, noticing subtle changes to his once-adventurous, care-free, skydive-loving personality.
“He became quite routine focused, planning out his days meticulously,” she says.
“We had assumed that it was to do with him studying a Bachelor of Engineering and then Masters of Asset Management.
“He became obsessed with recording his schedule on an Excel spreadsheet he had developed. It showed the hours he studied, worked, any overtime and exercise – he didn’t deviate from this schedule, even when he wasn’t studying.”
Mrs Monos says her father also had a few physical altercations with people which was unlike him, and his work had started noticing changes to his demeanour. This ultimately led them to terminate his contract.
“He was becoming difficult to work with and manage, and his performance at work had declined,” she says.
After his FTP diagnosis was confirmed by three specialists, the family members were left feeling as though they were to navigate their journey alone.
“There was no follow-up, no treatment plan, no training on what to expect – nothing to help navigate the ‘what next’,” Mrs Monos says. “A lot of what we did was through working it out ourselves.”
Dr Andrews says there has been a notable rise over the past decade in research funding for dementia, mirroring the increasing number of diagnoses due to our ageing population. Although this is progress for advancing research, she agrees a gap exists in areas of support and awareness for dementia patients, their families and caregivers.
“We need better initiatives to translate what we are learning about prevention and treatment in the lab to interventions and programs that benefit the wider community.” Dr Andrews says.
“Better support for caregivers and people living with dementia could definitely be improved.”
Dr Andrews urges anyone experiencing signs of cognitive decline or concern about their cognitive health to seek professional evaluation without delay.
“Early assessment can ensure that diagnosis and potential treatments can be investigated while a person might still be in their own home, which could help them maintain their quality of life for longer and have better overall outcomes.”