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