Health: Seminar On Dementia Shines Light On Science Behind The Condition

by Leia Green
While there is no cure for dementia, there are ways to decrease risk of cognitive decline.  PIXABAY PHOTO While there is no cure for dementia, there are ways to decrease risk of cognitive decline. PIXABAY PHOTO

HARWICH – Molly Perdue, the founder and co-director of the Alzheimer Family Support Center, discussed the science and struggles behind dementia related diseases in front of an audience of around 125 people at Holy Trinity Church May 20.

When Perdue asked her audience how many of them were frightened of getting Alzheimer’s or dementia, more than a hundred hands shot up.

As numbers surrounding cases of dementia continue to spike, so does fear of the mental condition, and the nonprofit Alzheimer Family Support Center aims to curb this anxiety.

“It can be difficult navigating cognitive loss, and if you’re a family member or a friend, it can be difficult figuring out what to do,” said Perdue. “And our mission is to try and make it a little easier.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly seven million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to rise to around 13 million by 2050. It is estimated that Cape Cod is home to between 10,000 and 13,000 cases of dementia-related diseases. However, many remain undiagnosed, and it isn’t just those with the disease who suffer.

“Along with 10,000 to 13,000 people roughly on Cape Cod, we know that these dementia-related diseases affect two to three other people that are caregivers,” Perdue said. “If the caregiver does not reach out for support, they can find that their life becomes quite stressful.”

Perdue owes her success with the Alzheimer Family Support Center to her eight years of experience as a “full time 24/7 caregiver.” While she was working on her Ph.D at Northeastern University in the early 2000s, her mother started experiencing cognitive loss. Soon after, Perdue found herself juggling two infants, a dissertation, and the “misunderstood and difficult” disease process she was navigating for her mother.

“The information and the research that was out there on how to help families was spotty,” Perdue said, referring to the difficulties she faced when educating herself on her mother’s condition.

Over recent years, the body of research on dementia has grown “exponentially,” and the AFSC draws on evidence from these studies to cultivate free support programs which educate the Cape Cod community on how to ease the burdens associated with cognitive loss.

“We’re not going to fix it and solve it, but we know how to help people live with it,” Perdue said. She added that while no cure for dementia exists, there are steps people can take to decrease the risk of cognitive loss.

A 2017 study conducted by the Lancet Commission, an organization dedicated to publishing the feats of the medical world, found that certain lifestyle habits cause 30 to 35 percent of worldwide dementia cases. These risk factors include physical inactivity, smoking, excessive alcohol use, exposure to air pollution and obesity.

While warning against these vices, Perdue urged the audience to continue to activate their minds as well as their bodies as they enter old age.

“Trying to stay curious as you age is really important,” Perdue said, adding that people who consistently find ways to occupy their minds, whether it be by playing instruments or participating in a book club, are less likely to experience cognitive loss.

A thriving social life can also benefit one’s cognitive health. Perdue cited a study conducted in France during COVID-19 which found that the increased isolation that came with the widespread lockdown correlated with a rise in dementia behaviors.

“We’re finding that social engagement is really critical as you age,” Perdue said. “And it’s not only important for those of you that are cognitively healthy, but it’s also important for people that are living with cognitive loss.”

Perdue also stressed that memory loss was not the only sign of cognitive decline, labeling a shrinking attention span, a lack of judgment and worsening organizational skills as other possible indicators of dementia-related diseases.

“As we learn to understand how cognitive loss and dementia affect human beings, we can learn to communicate more effectively,” Perdue said. “We can learn how to be less reactive and we can reduce our own stress.”

The groups and individuals that work to alleviate the pains of cognitive loss in Cape Cod set up tables inside the church, advertising their services to the crowd. Rock Harbor Respite Care, Visiting Angels, and Elder Services of Cape Cod were amongst the groups showcasing their dedication to supporting the community of Cape Codders impacted by dementia.