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Anton Bohmer
Anton Bohmer
Clinical psychologist
Stellenbosch
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The issue of dementia

In "Forget To Forget Me," Laurika Rauch sings of her longing for a loved one and the importance of remembering and not forgetting. It is the remembering that holds love, and the forgetting that we lose each other.

Memory is the building block of relationships, skills, culture and faith, but also the platform of identity. Memory connects our past with the present and enables us to project a future. Forget taking me to unfamiliar places, where my cell phone was hiding in the fridge, blowing out my routine at the door and getting lost in my words. The brain controls almost everything we think, do, feel and say. The brain also stores memories. However, there are diseases and neurological changes that prevent the brain from functioning properly. The word dementia describes a group of symptoms in which brain cells no longer communicate effectively.

The four most common causes are classified as Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia, vascular and frontal-temporal dementia. Although some form of dementia can occur at any age, the probability increases with age. The incidence starts at 1% by age 60 and doubles every 5 years; thus 4% by age 70, 16% by 80 and 32% by age 85.

Memory loss is a significant symptom. However, the pattern of symptoms differs as different brain areas atrophy in different diseases. In Alzheimer's disease, the brain's “memory conductor,” the hippocampus, struggles to store and recall information. In time, problems such as poor concentration and orientation, finding words, correct execution of plans, decline in abstract thinking, lack of insight and personality changes appear.

Getting a correct diagnosis is very important because symptoms of dementia can match those of other conditions such as depression, anxiety and even a bladder infection. The diagnostic process usually begins with a family doctor who performs blood tests, evaluates medical history and performs a short memory test. Further input from a neurologist or psychiatrist is valuable. Their evaluation of brain scans shows how healthy the brain looks and also identifies areas of change or damage. Yet a diagnosis is not based on a scan, but on how well the brain is functioning. The benefit of a specialized neuropsychological evaluation lies in the examination of abilities related to different brain areas. Just as a bicycle without brakes steers on trouble, deterioration in memory, language or planning impairs our daily way of doing things. Through a combination of tests within the context of a person's age and background, a diagnosis of dementia can be made or eliminated.

Currently, there is no cure for dementia. Treatment focuses on significantly slowing the progression of symptoms and improving an individual's quality of life.

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