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Recently widowed people face increase risk of dementia diagnosis

Awareness of the period following partner loss could speed up dementia diagnosis and necessary care, a study has found.

Individuals who experience the loss of a partner are nearly 50% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia within the three to six months following the bereavement, according to a new study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The researchers said that the bereavement does not directly cause dementia itself but unmasks existing, yet undiagnosed symptoms. They said that dementia may become more apparent due to increased access to people who can spot the symptoms and not having the partner present to help with daily tasks.

They also suggested that older individuals who live alone are less likely to have their dementia detected as the diagnostic process requires evidence of a decline in mental ability over time, which is normally verified by a partner.

Led by researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Partner Bereavement and Detection of Dementia is the fist UK-based study to explore the link between partner bereavement and the risk for receiving a dementia diagnosis, and if the amount of time after death affects that risk.

The scientists looked at the medical records from 1997 to 2017 of over 200,000 individuals aged 40 years and older, half of which had lost their partner. They found that there was a 43% increase in risk of dementia diagnosis in the three months following the partner’s death, with 367 bereaved patients diagnosed with dementia in this time period compared to 254 non-bereaved.

This increase was still prevalent after six months, with individuals 24% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia compared to those non-bereaved.

The researchers said that, while this could be a result of damage to the brain due to bereavement, it is unlikely that the symptoms of dementia would manifest in this short three to six month period, as dementia normally causes a slow and steady decline of brain function over several years. Therefore, it is more likely that this pattern is due to pre-existing dementia that was undiagnosed.

Study author, Dr Harriet Forbes, assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said there is an urgent need for better detection of dementia cases, with around 34% of dementia patients in the UK going undiagnosed meaning around 850,000 people are not receiving the necessary care and support they need. And this number is expected to double by 2040.

She said an accurate and timely diagnosis of dementia would mean access to treatments that can improve the symptoms and potentially slow down the progress of the disease, whilst also giving the patient and their family time to prepare for the future. She said:

‘Our study shows a clear link between the loss of a partner and the likelihood that the surviving partner is diagnosed with dementia in the three to six months following. This is important as a timely diagnosis for people living with dementia is essential to enable patients and their carers to receive care and support.

‘We hope the findings will bring greater awareness that this period of time is a high risk for dementia diagnosis, so systems could be put in place for recently bereaved individuals which could speed up diagnosis and improve the future quality of life.

‘Our work didn’t examine why there was an increased risk of dementia diagnosis following partner bereavement. However, the loss of a partner may result in the surviving partner being unable to cope with day-to-day activities without the partner to help.

‘Additionally, at a time of loss friends and family tend to gather together more, so might spot symptoms of dementia which might have previously been missed. Similarly, the individuals might be in contact with medical professionals more than normal who could see the signs, creating greater opportunity for diagnosis.’

Dr Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK said it is crucial that people with dementia get a reliable diagnosis without delay. She said:

‘This research suggests that people who lose a partner are more likely to receive a diagnosis of dementia within six months of their loss, however the reasons underpinning this link are unclear.

‘The loss of a partner will have an enormous impact on anybody’s life. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must be adjusting to life without the support of a partner while also dealing with declining memory and thinking skills.

‘It is crucial that people with dementia get a reliable diagnosis without delay. A diagnosis not only helps people to make sense of the symptoms they are experiencing; it opens the door to existing treatments and support to help them manage their condition.’

It is crucial that people with dementia get a reliable diagnosis without delay.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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