This was an article that I wrote in October 2010 for my regular column Last Word for Eves Touch.
Dementia is characterized by loss in memory, attention, language, comprehension and judgement due to disease of the brain. The problem is due to not diagnosing dementia in time as symptoms can be treated to a certain extent. The non-recognition of the condition can cause great trauma to the sufferer.
In India, one in nearly 50 households has a dementia patient. Dementia affects more women than men in India. This is counter to global studies that say males are more prone to suffering from this brain destroying condition. According to the India Dementia Report 2010, of the 36 lakhs Indians who suffer from dementia, 21 lakhs are women. A plausible reason could be longevity of Indian women. The Union Health ministry says that life expectancy at birth (LEB) of an Indian male is 65.8 as compared to 68.1 in women. Dementia mainly affects older people and sets in 2% of cases before the age of 65. After this, it doubles every five years.
Lack of professional caregivers is one of the biggest problems in treating dementia patients. The care giving is at home and nearly 75% of the primary caregivers are women. The stress resulting from the sustained effort of taking care 24×7 has a major negative impact –physical, psychological and economic—on caregivers. Stress has been defined as a sense of irritation, tension, nervousness, anxiety, fear or sleeping problems due to work, health, family or other problems. depression, old age, Negatively, stress in turn can lead to dementia as well.
Doctors say that Dementia can be avoided or lessened by managing diabetes and depression, prolonging education and eating more fruit and vegetables. Learning used to be a continuous process in many women’s lives. At different stages of life using memory skills was a part of education and life. It began with chanting little prayers, learning songs, reciting the alphabet and the mathematical tables. This was a process that was entirely auditory. You listened to the sounds and memorised them and books with the matter printed were rare to come by or discouraged. Stories from Puranas, Itihasas like Ramayana and Mahabaratha were heard through storytellers and committed to memory and retold to children. Thus a combination of shruti (listening) and smruti (remembering) helped to keep dementia at bay.
Learning continued to happen in a woman’s life…in the kitchen, in domestic accounting and petty cash management, in her children’s education, in craft—knitting, crochet, embroidery, drawing the kolam; in learning music, religious poems and as she grew older, chanting long pieces like Soundarya Lahiri, Thirukural, Narayaneeyam etc. As their responsibilities reduced they were able to engage in listening and studying philosophical works like the Gita, Bhagavatham, Sundara kandam and other material. Much of it was memorised.
In the past decades books have proliferated with all this material printed and at hand to read and chant. We hardly learn by heart any material and depend on books to read this matter. Today, we denigrate children learning educational material by heart as rote. We are under no compulsion to remember telephone numbers, addresses, names of spouses and kids in extended families as all this is recorded as reference in the cell phone, cordless, computer, address books etc.
Children were encouraged to remember general knowledge gleaned from reference books. Today information is available at the touch of the button from the internet. People used to play bridge that required you to keep track of the cards. Crosswords, Scrabble, word games challenged you to sharpen your word skills. Today people have no time to develop interests like these. They play mindless automated games where the movement is controlled by a computer or chip with minimum inputs from the user.
Dementia can be avoided or mitigated by mainly engaging your brain on a day to day basis. You can learn a new language, memorize songs, poetry and prayers, do Sudoku, crosswords and word games, play Bridge or chess, exercise and increase oxygen supply to the brain. Interacting with people, writing blogs, involving yourself in social networking, teaching less privileged people skills and useful things can help you hold dementia at bay. At the same time age related memory loss will happen…do not despair or get depressed. Learn to accept limitations and use tricks like mnemonics, associating ideas and making little notes to remember stuff.
A positive approach to dementia combined with timely medical advice and medication can help us cope with memory loss.