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What if it’s not dementia?

There is an increasing awareness of dementia globally due to many of the awareness raising campaigns that have been run though advocacy organisatons like Alzheimer’s Australia or the Alzheimer’s Society UK, such as Dementia Friends UK or the increasing numbers of Dementia Friendly Communities initiatives.

More than 100 other disorders can trigger dementia-like symptoms (Source: Shutterstock)

by Kate Swaffer

These are positive steps in raising awareness in the community and adopting the human rights and disability rights based approach previous pioneered by Alzheimer’s Scotland and now being pursued at the highest levels globally by Dementia Alliance International in collaboration with Alzheimer’s Disease International. 

However, along with the positives of raising awareness, these campaigns may also increase the fear of dementia, especially when there is still minimal pharmaceutical treatment and no cure in sight. 

Dementia, of which there are more than 100 types or causes, which also includes Alzheimer’s disease, is simply an umbrella term in the same way the word cancer is used, and it has now become the most feared disease ahead of cancer. 

This may cause people to not want to seek a diagnosis. In fact, whilst the public discourse continues to focus on the ‘suffering’ and hopelessness of dementia, and the language of fear and war, rather than promoting the reality of people being diagnosed earlier in the disease living longer with more productive lives, this fear will continue. 

With headlines almost daily declaring the rising rates of Alzheimer's disease or other dementias, it's far too easy to get that distressing feeling that a misplaced set of car keys or the forgetting of someone’s name means you are heading towards or have dementia.

Kate Swaffer
Kate Swaffer

A few years ago at an Australian Government Minister’s Dementia Advisory Group meeting I attended, I said to one of the Geriatricians next to me that, if I was over 70 and was worried I had dementia, I’d probably not bother to tell my doctor. He looked at me with a wry smile and said, “But what if the doctor could cure you?” 

It is important you know that more than 100 disorders ranging from the side effects of medication to urinary tract infections that can also trigger dementia-like symptoms. Some are not serious, but they are often missed or misdiagnosed, and also can explain in part why dementia is often difficult to diagnose. Many of these conditions that have similar symptoms to dementia are reversible, and perhaps therefore we need to be less fearful of dementia. 

Some of the more common conditions that have dementia-like symptoms include delirium, urinary tract infections, polypharmacy, reactions to some medications, depression or another mental health disorder, vitamin D deficiency, thyroid disorders, and even diabetes.  

Conditions such as Lyme’s Disease also mimic dementia symptoms. Our health is complicated, and it is always important to seek medical advice for any changes in your health, including changes to your memory or other cognitive functioning.Although our chance of having dementia increases with age, dementia is not a normal part of ageing, and even at the age of 85 only 1 in three people will have dementia. 

Therefore, if you do have dementia-like symptoms or are worried you might have dementia, do seek medical advice. It may turn out it is one of these other conditions that your doctor can treat, and your dementia-like symptoms could disappear!

Kate Swaffer was diagnosed with younger onset dementia at the age of 49. She recently received an Australian Financial Review/Westpac 100 Women of Influence Award in the category of Social Enterprise and Not-for-profit for her work with Dementia Alliance International. Ms Swaffer is speaking at the upcoming Dementia Strategy Summit in Sydney.


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