Alzheimer’s just a normal part of ageing

Alzheimer’s is the second most feared disease after cancer, but a mental health specialist has said that it shouldn’t be regarded as a tragedy, but as a normal part of the ageing process in people aged 85 and over.

Just as other parts of the body degenerate – eyes, bones, heart and skin – our brain is also likely to degenerate as we enter advanced age.

David Spektor, a specialist in aged persons’ mental health, will address the international conference on dementia in Sydney and tell that labelling people in their 80s and 90s with Alzheimer’s disease is unfair and may serve no productive purpose.

‘‘We bring fear to millions by telling them they have a disease; everyone’s brain ages and in different ways. We risk turning a normal process into a disease,’’ the Age quoted him as saying in an interview.

Dr Spektor, senior clinical psychologist at Melbourne Health, a public health provider connected to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, said that the reality of ageing was that many people in their 80s and 90s would lose memory and cognitive abilities, just as they were likely to suffer hearing loss and deteriorating eyesight.

‘‘Getting the diagnosis can lead people to overestimate what they can’t do and under-estimate what they can do. And the things they can do – laugh, hug, empathise, love – are arguably far more important aspects of being human,’’ he said.

Dr Spektor said he did not question the existence of Alzheimer’s disease as a medical condition and for people under 85 diagnosis and medication to slow the condition, if appropriate, were useful.

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But the focus on Alzheimer’s as a disease meant much of the research effort was on finding a cure rather than finding better ways to care for millions of old people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia as they reached the end of their lives.

‘‘We need more research on how people can live with quality and dignity during all the worsening symptoms of the condition,’’ he said.

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