Many Canadians continue to chalk up symptoms of dementia to old age instead of going to see a doctor, according to a study released by the Alzheimer Society of Canada.
The study, released on Wednesday, shows almost 50 per cent of Canadians waited a year or more to see a doctor after first showing signs of the disease. Of these, 16 per cent waited more than two years.
The most common reason (53 per cent) for delaying a doctor’s visit was the belief the symptoms were related to aging. Another 39 per cent said their symptoms were episodic and didn’t seem serious enough to warrant medical attention.
“Dementia is not a normal sign of aging,” said Mary Schulz, the National Director of Education at the Alzheimer Society. “It’s not going to go away on its own, and in fact, what you don’t know can hurt you.”
The delays slowed patient’s access to medication and limited their ability to plan for their own future, according to the survey of nearly 1,000 caregivers in Canada.
Memory loss was the top-cited (75 per cent) symptom of the disease. Another 65 per cent also referred to disorientation in time and place, while 64 per cent of respondents cited changes in personality.
Sixty-seven-year-old Mary McKinlay of Napanee, Ont. endured four years of what she called a “foggy brain” before going to a doctor.
“I was pretty sure I had a brain tumor maybe, never thought of Alzheimer’s, of course, because I was only 60,” said McKinlay, who was diagnosed six years ago.
McKinlay was working at a probation office at the time and thought her symptoms were associated with the air in the building because her brain fogged over after 20 minutes. She took early retirement and started another job, but the problem followed her there.
“The final straw was I couldn’t figure out how to put my denture in my mouth and I thought it’s time to go into the doctor and figure out what is going on.”
To her relief the doctor told her it wasn’t brain cancer. Instead, he diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s and put her on medication.
Three-quarters of respondents said they wished they had been diagnosed sooner, McKinlay among them.
An earlier diagnosis would have meant eligibility for long-term disability and access to symptom-reducing medication.
“Now that I’m on the medication we’ve learned how to adjust myself to my changing brain,” McKinlay said. “If I have a real foggy brain I don’t do too much, but if I have a clear head I get going with tasks I’ve wanted to do.”
Schulz said early diagnosis also gives patients a chance to take control of their future and make decisions about what needs to be done as the disease progresses. Family members also benefit from increased time to learn how to become caregivers.
An estimated 1.1 million Canadians will have dementia within the next 25 years. An earlier study by the Alzheimer Society, entitled “Rising Tide”, suggests that delaying the onset of dementia by two years would save the Canadian economy $219-billion over 30 years. Giving caregivers time and training to learn how to support their loved ones could save $63-billion over the same time period says the report.
The Alzheimer Society is urging Canadians to learn the symptoms of dementia and is working with the College of Family Physicians of Canada to support family doctors in diagnosing the illness.
Still, Schulz said it’s time the provincial and federal governments took a leading role in battling dementia.
“We do need a plan, a well-thought out plan that is properly resourced,” she said.