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Is There an Epidemic of Dementia?

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Good morning, welcome to Dementia Q&A. I’m Dr. Marc, internist and geriatrician.

This week’s question: Is there an epidemic of dementia going on in society today?

It certainly might seem that way. The short answer is no. There is not an epidemic of dementia and that’s because dementia is not a contagious communicable disease the way measles or tuberculosis are. We know with 100% certainty that you cannot catch dementia from somebody you come in contact with.

But I understand why people might think there’s an epidemic going on. I can think of two main reasons for that: One, the numbers don’t lie. The baby boomer generation is the largest generation we’ve ever seen and they are moving through their 60’s and their 70’s. During their 60’s, some of the early signs and symptoms of some types of dementia start to appear. In the 70’s, a lot of the early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s show up: Difficulty with short-term memory, difficulty with being oriented to the day, the week, the month, maybe the season, and difficulty with language, things like naming people and objects and things. Obviously, in such an enormous group of people such as the baby boomers, a percentage of them are going to have dementia and so that number is big, no matter what.

The second reason it might seem like there’s an epidemic of dementia is really more subtle and it’s how we talk about dementia today in a way that we really didn’t do so in the past. In the past, it was very common for dementia to be, what I call the “family secret.” People with dementia were often kept at home, a little bit isolated from everybody else, sometimes even ignored or forgotten. Caregivers themselves usually toiled in silence, alone. They didn’t share their struggles with many people and often, caregiving can be a lonely, very tiring, and thankless job.

Today, more and more people feel comfortable talking about dementia, especially as it’s affecting the baby boomers, who really always have felt more comfortable talking about diseases openly than generations of the past. In that sense, it’s following the same trajectory as cancer. Cancer was once a very secret, quiet diagnosis. People talked about the “C” word very quiet, but now over dinner, people talk about cancer all the time. People are living very productive lives with cancer and surviving the disease. In that sense, dementia is following the same course. There’s more research than ever before about the diagnosis of the disease and how it progresses. There’s lots of clinical trials trying to find drugs that could stop the disease and there’s tons more that could be done that could support our caregivers. There are many more programs for people with dementia to keep them active and vibrant in the community and, obviously, there’s technology and innovation that’s now being brought to bear to improve quality of life for people with dementia. To access all of that and to learn about all of it and take advantage of it, you have to be talking about it openly, and that’s what people are doing. I personally think that’s a great thing, but I understand why it might seem like everybody’s got memory loss or there’s some kind of epidemic going on. Again, there isn’t.

I hope that understanding why dementia seems to be so front and center these days is helpful for you as you think about resources you might be able to access and care you might be able to provide for someone you care about.

If you have a question about dementia you’d like a geriatrician to try to answer, please put it in the comments section and if you’ve liked or shared or subscribed to the page, it’s greatly appreciated. Thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next week.

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