06/13/2012 07:54 EDT | Updated 08/13/2012 05:12 EDT

How To Spot Dementia and Alzheimer's

For country and western star Glen Campbell, the decision to go public with his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease wasn't easy. In the press release that he and his wife Kim issued in June 2011, the 76-year-old singer admitted to experiencing short-term memory problems for years before being diagnosed.

As Campbell's daughter, Ashley, pointed out in a CNN interview, the family's main concern was fans getting the wrong impression of problems that her father might develop on stage during shows: "We were concerned about was during shows he would forget a line or get a little confused. People would think, 'Is he drunk?' Is he doing drugs again?" Currently engaged in a series of goodbye tours and media events to increase public awareness for Alzheimer's disease, Glen Campbell is experiencing an upsurge of popularity as his international host of fans rally around him.


Will there be a tremendous rise in new dementia cases like Glen Campbell's over the next two to three decades? Despite promising research into the role of certain risk factors in dementia and new forms of treatment, the answer may well be yes without a sharp increase in the funding currently given to research. A new report released this year by the World Health Organization (WHO) titled, Dementia: A Public Health Priority shows that 35.6 million people are currently living with dementia. This number is expected to double by 2030 and likely triple by 2050.

These grim statistics are well in line with the numbers reported by many national organizations dealing with dementia. In 2009, when the Alzheimer's Society of Canada released its own report, "Rising Tide: The Impact of Dementia on Canadian Society", they warned that the estimated 500,000 Canadians currently suffering from dementia would more than double over the next 25 years. Of the half million dementia patients in Canada at present, about 71,000 (15 per cent) are under the age of 65 with 59,000 being under the age of 60.

The Society predicts an additional 250,000 dementia diagnoses within the next five years with the number swelling to well over a million by 2040. As a clinical neuropsychologist who has worked with dementia cases, I have seen firsthand the devastating consequences that all types of dementia can have on patients and the family members who care for them.

The Alzheimer's Society of Canada provides a list of ten warning signs that might indicate a problem with Alzheimer's disease or other dementia (remember that proper diagnosis should be left up to qualified professionals). These warning signs in yourself or someone close to you need to be referred immediately to your primary care physician:

1. Memory loss that affects day-to-day functioning. While memory loss is a normal part of aging people with early dementia become much more forgetful and often become upset when corrected or reminded. In many cases, memory loss is often exaggerated due to depression or other causes.

2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks. Tasks that were once routine such as cooking or self-care can become much more difficult and many dementia patients often need to be supervised to avoid accidents. This is especially true in cooking since fires can start due to food being left on a stove accidentally.

3. Problems with language. Forgetting certain words or problems with language comprehension may make dementia patients harder to understand. In many cases however, language skills can stay intact until relatively late in the illness which lets dementia patients mask their problem and delay proper diagnosis.

4. Disorientation of time and place. Do you or a loved one get lost frequently in once-familiar neighbourhoods or other places? While forgetting where you are or the proper date is something that happens to everyone once in a while, a recurring pattern might indicate a problem.

5. Impaired judgment. New problems with self-care, poor hygiene, bad financial decisions, or other examples of judgment problems might be a sign of dementia. Driving is a particular concern at this stage since people who are even in an early stage of dementia might become dangers to themselves or others.

6. Problems with abstract thinking. Abstract thinking is defined as the ability to use concepts and understand generalizations such as numbers. Are you or a loved one having a problem balancing a cheque-book or not understanding what a birthday is?

7. Losing things. Though we all misplace objects at times, a consistent pattern of losing things or misplacing familiar objects (eg., placing keys in a refrigerator) is a signal that something is wrong.

8. Changes in mood and behaviour. This can be tricky since depression is often associated with early dementia. Whether the depression is causing the symptoms or masking an underlying problem is something best left to a competent professional.

9. Changes in personality. Personality can change as people grow older but are your or someone close to you becoming more withdrawn or suspicious? Apathy, fearfulness or uncharacteristic behaviour can also be signs that something is wrong.

10. Loss of initiative. Don't feel like doing the things that you usually do? Are you too tired or simply don't have the energy that you used to have? While it's normal to slow down as we get older, becoming more passive or needing to be prompted to do things might be a sign of developing dementia.

Once again, do NOT try diagnosing yourself or someone close to you if some or all of these warning signs appear. There are a whole range of medical or psychological conditions that can mimic many of these symptoms (including depression), and a proper diagnosis should only be made by a qualified medical professional after a comprehensive examination.

Prospects for the Future

For the families of Glen Campbell and the millions of other diagnosed dementia patients, the burden is only just beginning. Even now, resources to help families dealing with dementia are strained to the breaking point and are likely to be overwhelmed as more dementia patients are diagnosed. Most of the complex burden of caring for the rising number of dementia patients we will be seeing in the decades to come will likely fall on unpaid family members with few, if any, community resources to help them. With the rising number of cases of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias in the decades to come, the need for better solutions and more specialized health care workers may well force Canada's health care system to the breaking point.

As Richard Nakoneczny, Volunteer President of the Alzheimer's Society of Canada, noted in the report, "The predicted surge in dementia cases will certainly overwhelm Canada's health care system unless specific and targeted action is taken. Canada must act now."


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