Expert debunks 'unhelpful myths' about dementia

An expert in old-age psychiatry has offered some advice relating to some of the most common "myths" around dementia, which could prove useful and comforting for people who have seen loved ones affected by the condition.

Dr Kailas Roberts is a consultant psychiatrist and psychogeriatrician who advises on the management of behavioural and psychological symptoms frequently associated with dementia.

Writing in the Guardian, he stressed that common misconceptions around this subject can lead to an "undue anguish and reluctance to seek help". He also pointed out that the "bleak view" of dementia is "often unjustified".

The first myth highlighted by Dr Roberts is that every individual affected by dementia will experience memory loss, a belief he warned could lead to under-recognition of the condition.

Memory loss is the most commonly recognised symptom of dementia linked to Alzheimer's disease, which is the biggest cause of dementia. However, other forms of the condition could manifest in different ways. Symptoms of vascular dementia, for example, can vary depending on which part of the brain is affected by reduced blood flow, while frontotemporal dementia can cause personality changes, behavioural shifts and language problems.

Another myth, according to the psychiatrist, is that anyone who has a family member with dementia is likely to experience the condition as well. Genetics is one of the risk factors, but there are various other elements that can influence a person's likelihood of developing dementia, such as lifestyle choices, which are controllable.

Research has highlighted various lifestyle factors and positive habits that could prevent or delay the onset of dementia, including:

  • Being physically active and regularly engaging in moderate aerobic exercise and resistance training
  • Eating foods commonly associated with a traditional Mediterranean diet, such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, beans, grains, fish and unsaturated fats like olive oil
  • Maintaining healthy sleeping patterns
  • Staying in touch with others and having strong social relationships
  • Frequently trying new things and 'exercising' your brain

For the families of people living with dementia, one of the most reassuring arguments made by Dr Roberts is that it's a mistake to believe nothing can be done about this condition, which affects approximately 850,000 people in the UK alone.

"The truth is that there is help available," he wrote. "Medications that help with cognition can have a meaningful impact for some and can also be helpful for the psychological and behavioural changes that often accompany the condition."

Furthermore, there can be effective interventions for psychological changes and alterations in behaviour. Dr Roberts highlighted measures that aim to understand the "specific and unmet needs of the person with dementia and which may involve environmental, social and behavioural changes".