DUBLIN — Community leaders are tacking the issue of dementia head on.
In 2015, the North Carolina Institute for Medicine conducted a study of North Carolinians living with dementia. Researchers found that one in five deaths are attributable to the disease, making it the fifth leading cause of death in the state, and the only one in the top 10 that cannot be cured, prevented, or slowed. Already affecting 160,000 people in the Tar Heel State, the disease is expected to reach 210,000 people by 2025.
Despite its prevalence, it remains largely ignored.
“This isn’t the kind of thing that comes up in normal conversation,” said Bladen County Commissioner Ashley Trivette. “We talk about our kids, the weather, or school, but we don’t just tell people, ‘Hey, my mom doesn’t remember who I am any more’.”
The most common, and arguably the most well-known, of dementia diseases is Alzheimer’s, affecting one in seven North Carolinians. Other dementia disorders include cerebrovascular/vascular dementia, mixed dementia, Lewy Disease, and frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia diagnoses, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
A set of symptoms caused by underlying brain malfunction, dementia goes beyond the normal forgetfulness that often accompanies old age. In contrast to normal cognitive decline, dementia is a degenerative and progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. In addition to memory loss, symptoms of dementia include language difficulty and impaired judgment that have a root in physiological changes in the brain.
The decline is broken into stages. In its earliest onset, dementia may manifest as memory loss that disrupts normal life, inability to solve problems, confusion about familiar places or time, vision problems, and issues with vocabulary and conversation. As it progresses into the middle phase, the disorder may cause difficulty performing routine tasks like driving and paying bills. The last stage is often characterized by the loss of ability to speak, eat, recognize loved ones, or use the toilet, and it ends in death.
Those living with it must also cope with emotional components.
“Imagine being that person who doesn’t know their children’s names; imagine how terrible that feels,” commented Trivette. “It can be terrifying to have people coming up trying to hug you, and you don’t even know who they are. These are the kinds of things a person living with dementia has to deal with, and they can be very scary.”
Certain subgroups are more susceptible to the disease, according researchers at the N.C. Center for Medicine. In the 65-74 age group, blacks have the highest percentage (9.1). At the age of 85, the disease is most prevalent in Latinos (62.9 percent), compared to blacks (58.6 percent) and non-Latino whites (30.2 percent). Women are twice as likely as men to develop dementia.
Because people with the disorder might require constant care, its financial impact can be overwhelming. Researchers at the North Carolina Instutute for Medicine found dementia to be the most costly disease in the state. In 2014, it was estimated that 448,000 North Carolinians provided $6.2 billion in unpaid care for loved ones, in addition to the direct costs (doctor bills, medication, etc.) associated with the disorder.
“This is a silent killer,” Trivette commented. “We need to come together and focus, talk about this, love on each other, and talk about how we can help people struggling with this.”
To that end, a Dementia Friendly Initiative is being launched in Bladen County. Elected officials, law enforcement, EMS personnel, business owners, health care providers, faith-based leaders, and county agencies with an interest in dementia are invited to a task-force-type meeting.
“I’m really excited about this,” Trivette said. “Bladen County has responded to other meetings we’ve had like this, and I know when we get like-minded people together, we can really start to make a difference.”
The Dementia Friendly Initiative will be held Tuesday, Feb. 27, at the Bladen Community College Auditorium from 1 to 4 p.m.
The initiative is sponsored by County Commissioner Charles Ray Peterson, Bladen County Manager Greg Martin, Bladen County Aging Services, Bladen County Department of Social Services, and the Lumber River Council of Governments.
RSVP is not required, but is recommended by calling the Division on Aging at 910-872-6330.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.