Dementia is a brain disease. It is not part of normal ageing.

Forgetting names, misplacing keys or getting lost in a familiar place may not simply be signs of old age. There could be an underlying medical condition – dementia.

“Dementia refers to a group of symptoms including memory loss and loss of independent function,” explains Dr Nagaendran Kandiah, Senior Consultant, Department of Neurology, National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), a member of the SingHealth group. “It is not part of normal ageing but is due to brain disease, where there is a degeneration of specific brain regions.”

Sufferers may find their mental capacity declining progressively along with a reduction in their ability to function normally. Dementia has early signs that are insidious, and patients are usually unable to pinpoint exactly when the symptoms first appeared.

Common symptoms of dementia

The following symptoms are 'red flags' suggesting a need for a medical evaluation.

Loss of memory function
  • Forgetting names and appointments
  • Misplacing keys
  • Being repetitive
Disoriented about place and time
  • Getting lost in shopping malls
  • Losing the way while driving
Impaired judgement
  • Finding it difficult to manage finances
  • Making unwise or even dangerous decisions
Language difficulties
  • Not remembering meanings of words
  • Difficulty in naming common objects
  • Making grammatical errors
Change in mood and behaviour
  • Having hallucinations and false beliefs
  • Hiding belongings
  • Being suspicious, agitated, restless or anxious
Difficulties in performing tasks
  • Being unable to organise events, dinners or holidays
  • Not knowing how to cook or maintain cleanliness
  • Making work-related errors, missing deadlines, inability to cope with workload
  • Being unable to learn new skills.

Diagnosing and treating dementia

In Singapore, dementia is a major healthcare concern. “In 2005, there were 22,000 dementia patients here,” observes Dr Kandiah. “But by 2020, the number is expected to hit 53,000.”

So if you’ve noticed that a family member has some of the symptoms mentioned above, it is best to take him or her to the doctor for a detailed assessment and diagnosis.

Dr Kandiah explains, “The assessment includes cognitive testing – like memory questionnaires and a neuropsychological test – and brain imaging – like CT or MRI scans. From there, the doctor will be able to advise on the appropriate management.”

Non-pharmacological management can include measures such as encouraging dementia patients to play mental stimulation games like mah-jong and having them wear safety bracelets.

Preventing dementia with lifestyle choices

Your lifestyle choices can play a significant role in keeping your brain healthy. Mahjong, a favourite Asian game, can stimulate your brain cells as you age, preventing or delaying the onset of dementia.

Challenge your brain

Provide your brain with regular challenges. “Regular mental exercises can help form and retain cognitive associations,” explains Dr Kandiah. “Learning new skills such as a language or picking up a musical instrument, can also help to increase brain reserve.”

Adopt a Mediterranean diet

Your brain needs a nutritious diet too. Consider adopting a Mediterranean diet that consists of plenty of fish, vegetables, grains and nuts, with some olive oil and moderate amounts of red wine. Red meat like beef should be limited to no more than a few servings a month. Dr Kandiah adds, “This diet can help to improve your cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of strokes.”

Work out

Working out is said to significantly reduce your risk of developing dementia. That’s because you’re channelling oxygen-rich blood to different parts of your body, including the brain. “Exercise at least three times a week,” advises Dr Kandiah. “Do a mix of aerobic activities – like jogging or stair-climbing – that will get your heart pumping and balance and coordination exercises to help you stay agile.”

Ref: Q15