Dementia: The ‘first’ symptom of dementia may not be memory loss – major study finding


    Dementia is the broad term used to describe a number of different conditions that lead to progressive brain decline. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, which is generally characterised by memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Although there is not a cure for Alzheimer’s, spotting it early enough can slow down its progression and help you or your loved one to prolong a good quality of life.

    Most people associate memory loss with Alzheimer’s but research suggests it may not be the first indicator.

    This is the key finding of systematic review that investigated the existing literature.

    Researchers conducted a broad sweep of the literature – spanning from from 1937 to 2016 – in a bid to document the signs and symptoms preceding the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

    The researchers found that depression and cognitive impairment were the first symptoms to appear in 98.5 percent and 99.1 percent of individuals in a study with late-onset Alzheimer’s and nine percent and 80 percent, respectively, in early-onset Alzheimer’s.

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    Memory loss presented early and was experienced 12 years before the clinically defined diagnosis of late-stage Alzheimer’s.

    The researchers concluded that “the findings of this review suggest that neurological and depressive behaviours are an early occurrence”.

    “However, the study was limited by the fact that each one of the findings was based on a single study,” they noted.

    Depression – symptoms to spot

    Identifying depression in someone with Alzheimer’s can be difficult, since dementia can cause some of the same symptoms.

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    According to the Alzheimer’s Association (AA), examples of symptoms common to both depression and dementia include:

    • Apathy
    • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies
    • Social withdrawal
    • Isolation
    • Trouble concentrating
    • Impaired thinking.

    “In addition, the cognitive impairment experienced by people with Alzheimer’s often makes it difficult for them to articulate their sadness, hopelessness, guilt and other feelings associated with depression,” notes the health body.

    Depression in Alzheimer’s doesn’t always look like depression in people without Alzheimer’s.

    According to the AA, depression in people with Alzheimer’s:

    • May be less severe
    • May not last as long and symptoms may come and go
    • The person with Alzheimer’s may be less likely to talk about or attempt suicide.

    Can I reduce my risk of Alzheimer’s?

    As the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is still unknown, there’s no certain way to prevent the condition.

    But a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk.

    Cardiovascular disease has been linked with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

    You may therefore be able to reduce your risk of developing these conditions – as well as other serious problems, such as strokes and heart attacks – by taking steps to improve your cardiovascular health, says the NHS.

    These include:

    • Stopping smoking
    • Keeping alcohol to a minimum
    • Eating a healthy, balanced diet, including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day
    • Exercising for at least 150 minutes every week by doing moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking), or as much as you’re able to
    • Making sure your blood pressure is checked and controlled through regular health tests
    • If you have diabetes, make sure you keep to the diet and take your medicine.

    The latest research suggests that other factors are also important, although this does not mean these factors are directly responsible for causing dementia.

    These include hearing loss, a sedentary lifestyle and social isolation.


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