Minding the risks of dementia

Dementia takes such a heavy toll on those afflicted and their caregivers that it deserves far greater public attention.

Seniors who lose their memory, cognitive skills, emotional control and ability to perform basic tasks, such as feeding and bathing themselves, need others to care for them day and night. That burden is most often borne by family members. Indeed, a new study has found that those who care for dementia sufferers are three times more distressed than other caregivers.

Many may have to stop work which, in turn, exacts a heavy economic cost on society. The scale of the problem will grow as society ages and the incidence of dementia rises. One in 10 people aged 60 and above now have dementia. The number of sufferers is projected to rise from 28,000 in 2012 to 80,000 in 2030. This will require society to take a multifaceted approach to meet the growing challenge.

The first is to identify causative factors and mitigate them. The risk of dementia is 25 times higher for housewives and retirees than for workers. Those with primary education are also more susceptible than those with tertiary education. While the causes of dementia are not straightforward, ranging from genetic to physical and psychosocial factors, there are indications that staying happy, healthy and engaged can help prevent or delay its onset.

Thus the national push to help older people to stay employed and women to return to work serves a dual purpose: It addresses both a labour crunch and the challenge of staving off brain degeneration and its tragic consequences.

Also important are efforts to help seniors age in place in order to keep social connections alive. Community projects such as the Jurong Ageing Study find that weekly sessions of art, music or taiji lift seniors' spirits, and help ward off the depression that has been linked to dementia.

Those who exercise regularly, manage chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, and immerse themselves in social networks of family, friends and interest groups might be spared the onset of severe cognitive decline. This is a message that bears repeating.

More also needs to be done to enable early detection and treatment, and to strengthen support for affected families. The recent study by Institute of Mental Health experts and their international counterparts was an important step in identifying unmet needs and estimating caregivers' burdens. Such findings ought to spur a range of programmes aimed at those afflicted. Theirs is a long journey to reclaim the ability to live their lives more normally and less painfully. All can do their bit to help by drawing them into the life of the community. Social acceptance and understanding matter too.