On wrongly assuming memory loss and old age are integral to dementia, and on missed diagnosis

Around this time last year, I was in touch with a caregiver who was trying to cope with a father’s fronto-temporal dementia. In addition to watching his decline, this caregiver was also struggling with regret and frustration; the diagnosis had been delayed because senior specialists missed it, and the family had wasted several months in bewilderment and emotional flux wondering why the father had changed so much. If they had known the diagnosis earlier, they would have been able to accept and support the father’s situation better.

Over the year since this incident, I’ve been especially alert about such cases. (This caregiver’s case, incidentally, was not an isolated case, and I have blogged about similar concerns earlier). Of course, there will be missed diagnosis for any disease, but the problem is when diagnoses are missed because of systemic misinformation and stereotypes, not merely by chance. The human cost of delayed/ missed diagnosis–misunderstandings, anger, sorrow, conflicts, and no idea how to support–can tear apart a family.

In my opinion, too much of the publicity around dementia centers on Alzheimer’s and memory loss, and too much of the depiction focuses on elderly patients. Many people, including doctors, therefore assume that the early symptoms of dementia must include memory loss and that dementia hits only the elderly. So when family doctors are consulted for a fifty year old with problems like personality changes, odd social behavior or inability to name familiar objects, they may look at stress, family conflicts, and psychiatric problems. They discard even a remote possibility of dementia because “there’s no memory loss.” Such missed diagnoses can be avoided if we redesign our awareness campaigns.

Experts have increased their earlier estimates of the percentage of young onset patients and of non-AD dementias like FTD (fronto-temporal dementia/ degeneration). But existing campaigns continue using phrases like “dementia is a disease of the elderly” and “dementia is memory loss.” Many people use “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” interchangeably. Deeply ingrained habits require motivation and effort to change, and perhaps volunteers/ professionals involved haven’t yet seen the need for that effort. But the way I see it, such (inadvertent) exclusion/ profiling contributes to poorer visibility and thus in poorer diagnosis, which in turn hides the true prevalence of the ignored segments. People don’t think “exceptions” exist, so they are not alert about them, they don’t detect it/ diagnose it, and then, because the diagnosed cases are low, people feel justified in ignoring it. It looks like a vicious circle.

Take FTD (frontotemporal dementia/ degeneration), a group of dementias that impact the frontal and temporal lobes. Read the full post here

Dementia is not something only “others” get: Thoughts on vascular and other types of dementia (not just Alzheimer’s)

Last week, a neighbor who had been reading my Dementia Hindi website said, “I did not know this could also be due to vascular problems” (“mujhe nahin pataa tha ki yeh naadi sambandhee bhi ho sakta hai”). Her husband has hypertension, and they are not always careful about it; she was obviously shocked at the thought that neglected blood pressure problems could be connected in any way to the sort of symptoms she had seen in my mother. Dementia, hitherto a name this neighbor could barely pronounce, had become a relevant topic now.

I’d been tense watching this neighbor read the web page (the sort of tension a parent feels when a child is onstage). She had nodded at times, frowned at times, even muttered to herself. Her detailed questions after she finished reading the page showed that she was genuinely curious and concerned. In the course of my answers I happened to mention that sometimes head injuries can cause dementia, and again I saw the info-byte hit her hard; I suspect she’ll be more particular about family members wearing helmets, too.

Her concern set me thinking.

A lot of people think dementia is something that happens to others (not to them). They do not know how close it can hit. More important, they do not know that some health or safety aspects they are currently neglecting could increase their chances of dementia.

An additional problem is the confusion between the two words, “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s”. Much of dementia awareness is woven with the word “Alzheimer’s Disease”, and many dementia support organizations work under the umbrella name of Alzheimer’s. To laypersons, these terms seem interchangeable. And because “Alzheimer’s” seems an alien name, imported and “foreign”, many people are dismissive of it, and are also dismissive of dementia.

Such erroneous interchangeability causes weird misrepresentations. For example, one newspaper may claim that India has 3.7 million dementia cases but another newspaper, based on the same expert interview, may say India had 3.7 million Alzheimer’s cases. Given that Alzheimer’s is only one of the diseases that cause dementia, common sense shows that both statements cannot be true. Yet once published, the article stands as such, uncorrected, perpetually misleading.

I’ve always been concerned about this confusion between dementia and Alzheimer’s and this submersion of dementia under the word Alzheimer’s. I have many reasons for this concern. Read the full post here