Over the Easter weekend I went to visit my grandmother in her care home. She has dementia. This insidious, progressive disease is slowly robbing her of her mental and physical capabilities, and even her personality. Until a couple of years ago, my grandmother was a fiercely independent person who had lived on her own, in her own bungalow, for over 30 years since the death of my grandfather. She is now in a permanent state of confusion, and although she still recognises me, she doesn’t know who I am. A once gentle, polite and quietly-spoken lady, she is now prone to aggressive outbursts and rudeness towards her carers. The physical consequences of her dementia are also now apparent. She has difficulty swallowing; her coordination is almost too poor to allow her to feed herself; and she is virtually bedridden due to an inability to walk or even stand unaided.
It’s a very sad situation. My grandmother is one of 850,000 people who suffer from dementia in the UK, and 35.6 million people worldwide. Thankfully, enormous efforts are being put into research for new treatments for dementia. In an article in The Daily Telegraph on February 26th, the chairman of the World Dementia Council, Dr Dennis Gillings, said a cure for dementia may be found within five years. He is optimistic that new drugs in development will be able to remove the plaques and neural tangles characteristic of the disease.
In the meantime, there are things we can all do to help prevent the onset of dementia symptoms. In the excellent series, The Brain, aired throughout February on BBC Four, the neurologist Dr David Eagleman described a study of nuns which had a surprising outcome. It found that maintaining physical and mental activity in their advancing years didn’t stop the formation of plaques in the brain associated with dementia, but it did prevent the nuns from developing the symptoms. It seems the brain is plastic enough to rewire itself and bypass the areas of damage to maintain normal function. So keeping up and developing your interests and hobbies really can have benefits in later life. I’m off now for a workout – I’m going to tackle the cryptic crossword!