The World Alzheimer’s Month is beginning in September, an awareness-raising campaign run by Alzheimer’s Disease International. Worldwide there are over 46 million people who live with dementia, primarily caused by Alzheimer’s disease. This is an illness that is misunderstood and stigmatised in many places, and as a result can go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for too long. World Alzheimer’s Month aims to bring understanding for those with Alzheimer’s and take global action to support those with this disease.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a kind of dementia that slowly worsens with time. It can cause memory loss and cognitive impairments that interfere significantly with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease usually begins with an inability to recall newly-learned information, followed by mood changes, behaviour changes, and disorientation. In its late stages the disease can cause paranoia and confusion about family members, difficulty with motor control and speaking, and serious memory loss.
The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is increased age, though it can affect people when they are young as early-onset Alzheimer’s. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, though research is currently being undertaken to determine whether a cure can be found.
Diagnosis and Support
One of the major issues that those with dementia come up against is that their illness is stigmatised or not spoken about, which can delay diagnosis and accompanying treatment. This is one of the goals that World Alzheimer Month hopes to achieve, by bringing awareness to dementia and improving the lives of those who suffer from it.
There are a number of related conditions that can be confused with Alzheimer’s disease, including Parkinson’s disease dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Huntington’s disease. These illnesses can present in many ways that are similar, but all have very different progressions and outlooks. For different conditions, different treatment plans should be undertaken, and symptom management may be very different, so an accurate diagnosis is very important.
There are also issues in the healthcare system with patients having a dementia diagnosis missed altogether, which prevents them from receiving any care or treatment at all. Undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease can reduce access to treatments, and can also put extra strain on families and caregivers. Alzheimer’s Disease International has reported that up to two-thirds of those with Alzheimer’s are currently undiagnosed, which “represents a tragic missed opportunity to improve the quality of life for millions of people”.
The problems with misdiagnosis or missed diagnosis are worse for those in ethnic minorities, with one study finding that 28% of ethnic minorities with dementia had this missed in hospital, compared to 20% of white patients who had their diagnosis missed. A representative from a legal team dealing with clinical negligence claims noted that it is crucial for dementia patients to have their illness diagnosed in a hospital setting, due to the confusion and fear that can result from not understanding their surroundings or what is happening.
With World Alzheimer’s Month and other initiatives taking place to raise awareness of these issues, the trend will hopefully move towards greater diagnosis of these illnesses and increased support for the patients suffering from them. A speedy and accurate diagnosis is vital for a functioning healthcare system, and can make the overall care experience better for all patients with dementia.