Dementia: The ‘forgotten’ symptom that can be ‘devastating’ – it may precede memory loss

Dementia: Dr Sara on benefits of being in nature

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Dementia is prevalent yet confusion abounds. For starters, it is a syndrome (a collection of symptoms) not a disease. The symptoms are associated with progressive brain decline. Another misconception is that memory loss is the one symptom to spot.

There are a plethora of symptoms associated with dementia and memory loss may not have the biggest impact.

In fact, apathy is the “forgotten symptom” of dementia, yet it can have devastating consequences, warned Professor Clive Ballard, of the University of Exeter Medical School.

Apathy is characterised by a loss of interest and emotions. It is extremely distressing for families and it is linked with more severe dementia and worse clinical symptoms.

Professor Ballard and colleagues led a study into the effects of apathy on dementia patients.

They analysed 4,320 people with Alzheimer’s disease from 20 cohort studies, to look at the prevalence of apathy over time.

At the start of the study, 45 percent presented with apathy, and 20 percent had persistent apathy over time.

Researchers found that a proportion had apathy without depression, which suggests that the symptom might have its own unique clinical and biological profile when compared to apathy with depression and depression only.

Doctor Miguel de Silva Vasconcelos, of the University of Exeter and King’s College London, said: “Apathy is an under-researched and often ignored symptom of dementia.

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“It can be overlooked because people with apathy seem less disruptive and less engaging, but it has a huge impact on the quality of life of people living with dementia, and their families.

“Where people withdraw from activities, it can accelerate cognitive decline and we know that there are higher mortality rates in people with apathy. It’s now time this symptom was recognised and prioritised in research and understanding.”

Professor Clive Ballard said: “Our research shows just how common apathy is in people with dementia, and we now need to understand it better so we can find effective new treatments.

“Our WHELD study to improve care home staff training through personalised care and social interaction included an exercise programme that improved apathy, so we know we can make a difference. This is a real opportunity for interventions that could significantly benefit thousands of people with dementia.”

Other symptoms of dementia include problems with:

  • Language, such as using words incorrectly, or trouble speaking
  • Understanding
  • Judgement
  • Mood
  • Movement
  • Difficulties doing daily activities.

Why it’s important to get a diagnosis

The NHS explains: “Although there is no cure for dementia at the moment, an early diagnosis means its progress can be slowed down in some cases, so the person may be able to maintain their mental function for longer.”

According to the health body, a diagnosis helps people with dementia get the right treatment and support.

“It can also help them, and the people close to them, to prepare for the future.”

Am I at risk?

There’s no certain way to prevent all types of dementia, as researchers are still investigating how the condition develops.

However, there’s good evidence that a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk of developing dementia when you’re older.

Research suggests the risk factors may be important:

  • Hearing loss
  • Untreated depression
  • Loneliness or social isolation
  • Sitting for most of the day.

The research concluded that by modifying the risk factors we are able to change, our risk of dementia could be reduced by around a third.

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