How do you picture yourself as you get older? Weak? Forgetful? Lonely and unhealthy? Or do you expect to be happy, physically active, surrounded by friends and family and still learning new things? These are important questions. Your answers to them can contribute to the way you live your life. They may also influence how you react to cognitive lapses of your elderly relatives and loved ones. In my clinical work I frequently hear something like: “Oh yeah, he´s quite forgetful, but it´s nothing like Alzheimer´s disease”, or “No, her memory is not bad, she mostly just asks me what day it is”. Comments like this reflect a somewhat gloomy attitude towards aging. Underlying them is the assumption that marked cognitive decline is a natural part of aging. This is not necessarily the case. Marked cognitive decline is a sign of disease, not of age per se.
Knowing about aging and Alzheimer´s disease
In order for patients with Alzheimer´s disease (AD) to get the best possible treatment and their families to get the support they need it is important that the diagnosis is made early. For this to happen the initial symptoms of AD must be well recognized by physicians, neuropsychologists and other health care experts. Family and friends also play a major role because it is often them who instigate the first visit to the physician´s office. However, it is quite easy for relatives to miss the early warning signs of the disease. If knowledge about the early symptoms of AD is not sufficient it is likely that people see no particular reason to seek medical help when a loved one becomes forgetful. Attitudes towards the elderly and knowledge about healthy aging are likely to influence the decision to seek medical help due to changes in cognitive ability. If it is believed that severe memory loss is a normal part of aging it is quite likely that it will be disregarded and not looked upon as a potential medical problem. Of course relatives´ denial and fear of stigma, which unfortunately still is related to AD, can also delay the diagnosis.
Studies of Alzheimer´s disease knowledge
Recent studies have shown that there are important gaps in public knowledge of AD symptoms, even among relatives and caretakers of patients. It appears that memory loss is all too frequently attributed to normal aging rather than to a disease process. And this does not only apply to the general public but may also apply to general practitioners. Of course it is not realistic to expect the general public to have expert knowledge of aging and Alzheimer´s disease. But, we all have a vested interest in knowing as much as we can about how we can age successfully and what seperates benign memory lapses from those problems that could possibly indicate an impending disease. For this to happen it is necessary to increase public awareness of Alzheimer´s disease and of what constitutes successful aging.
Jackson, E. M., Cherry, K. E., Smitherman, E. A. & Hawley, K. S. (2008). Knowledge of memory aging and Alzheimer´s disease in college students and mental health professionals. Aging & Mental Health, 12 (2), 258-266.
Pentzek, M., Abholz, H-H., Ostapczuk, M., Altiner, A., Wollny, A. & Fuchs, A. (2009). Dementia knowledge among general practitioners: first results and psychometric properties of a new instrument. International Psychogeriatrics, 21(6), 1105-1115.
Rowe, J.W. & Kahn, R.L. (1998). Successful aging. New York: Pantheon Books.
The photo is not related to the post´s content and was obtained from antonpinchuk’s photostream (Flickr: Creative Commons).