Dossier: Healthy brain

How to recognise and handle dementia

Every third family in Switzerland is affected directly or indirectly by dementia. Although this illness cannot usually be cured, early detection is still vital.

Text: Nicole Krättli; photo: iStock

It is often a gradual process. Those affected feel lethargic and irritable. They tire easily and sleep poorly. They find it increasingly difficult to remember things or find their way around in new environments. They get moody and gradually start to withdraw. All these can be initial symptoms of dementia.

145,000 people in Switzerland suffer from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, with a further 30,000 cases being diagnosed each year. This means that every third family is affected directly or indirectly. As age is one of the key risk factors for dementia and our population is steadily getting older, experts believe that this figure is sure to rise in the future.

Dementia is not usually curable

Dementia is the umbrella term for over 100 different illnesses that have a negative impact on the functioning of the brain. Dementia predominantly affects cognitive skills such as thinking, memory, orientation and language. The key distinction is whether it is primary or secondary dementia. Primary dementia is triggered by the breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, where the nerve cells die without any apparent cause. The most common types of primary dementia include: Alzheimer’s, which is responsible for about 60% of 24 million dementia cases worldwide, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal dementia.

Secondary dementia is much rarer. Only around 10% of all dementia cases are triggered by an underlying disease. In this case, brain cells die as a result of an organic illness, such as an infection, a brain injury, a brain tumour or a cardiovascular disease.

While it is possible to cure or to reverse this form of dementia by treating the underlying disease, this is not yet possible with primary dementia. According to Alzheimer Schweiz, there are currently no drugs that can prevent, stop or cure Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia. Researchers worldwide have been working for many years on various active substances for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. However, no drug has yet been found that has proven really effective in treating the disease.

React quickly at the first signs

Some factors that increase the risk of dementia can’t be changed, such as age, sex and certain inherited genetic changes. However, there are ways to prevent and reduce the risk of developing dementia. These include a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and memory training. So, activities such as reading every day, doing puzzles, playing music, dancing or learning something new can help keep your brain fit and thus prevent dementia. But you should stay away from cigarettes, drugs and toxins such as alcohol, as these can all promote dementia.

Although primary dementia cannot be cured, it is important to detect it early. So it’s worth contacting your family doctor at the first signs of dementia. During the initial assessment, a short dementia test usually provides information on the possibility of dementia. Then thorough physical examinations are carried out to rule out other causes. Your mental abilities are then investigated in more detail to test your thinking, memory and orientation. Although Alzheimer’s isn’t curable, this form of dementia can be treated with drugs and psychosocial measures to ease the symptoms.

Often, it isn’t the person affected who notices the changes, but their family. In this case, it’s a good idea to talk to close friends and other family members to see if they’ve noticed any unusual behaviour, too. The Alzheimer Schweiz organisation recommends talking to the person affected about your concerns, and going with them to their family doctor to be able to describe your worries and any observations you have had about them.