Fear of con­di­tion is a shadow we can­not shake off

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health | Dementia - Padraig O’Mo­rain is ac­cred­ited by the Ir­ish As­so­ci­a­tion for Coun­selling and Psy­chother­apy.

I’ve never been much good at re­mem­ber­ing names. In fact, I’ve done a lot of dodg­ing and div­ing to avoid let­ting peo­ple know I’ve for­got­ten.

It’s a telling ex­am­ple of how scared we are of de­men­tia in later life that for­get­ting a name can sud­denly seem like a sign of some­thing worse.

Fear can lead us into ir­ra­tional­ity and this is cer­tainly an ir­ra­tional be­hav­iour on my part. For the first time ever, if I for­get a name, I search my mind for it un­til I find it. Then it stays in my head and doesn’t van­ish again.

So I am in the ridicu­lous sit­u­a­tion that I fear for­get­ting names, yet, I’m prob­a­bly bet­ter at re­mem­ber­ing them than I ever was in my life be­fore be­cause I am aware of them in a way I never was be­fore.

For me, mak­ing a big deal out of for­get­ting a name is a type of dis­torted think­ing, a kind of men­tal habit iden­ti­fied in cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy. This think­ing dis­tor­tion says that if one thing is wrong, ev­ery­thing is wrong.

Some­times this is true, of course. A white wed­ding dress sport­ing a sin­gle but vis­i­ble splash of mud from a pass­ing car is in­deed ru­ined in the eyes of the bride, who wanted to make a dif­fer­ent kind of splash. And for­get­ting the name of your part­ner, child or best friend should prob­a­bly ring alarm bells.


But some­times we take a nor­mal glitch and el­e­vate it into early-stage Alzheimer’s. You for­get where in the car park you left the car and you feel a stab of fear – but, re­ally, it only mat­ters if this is hap­pen­ing ev­ery time you park the car.

I know a man who left a tap run­ning one day a few years ago and who was quite dis­turbed by the pos­si­bil­ity that this might have been a sign of age-re­lated men­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Yet, in the in­ter­ven­ing years he has never left a tap run­ning.

If this had hap­pened to him 30 years ago, he would have shrugged and turned off the tap and wouldn’t have given it an­other thought.

Be­cause it hap­pened 30 years later, the con­text was dif­fer­ent and it seemed more se­ri­ous than, in fact, it was.

Not long ago, the great fear was can­cer. It was re­ferred to in hushed tones as the Big C. Peo­ple even some­times avoided other peo­ple who had can­cer – it scared them and they didn’t know what to say.

We still have that fear of can­cer but I don’t be­lieve it’s as strong as it was. For peo­ple in older age groups, de­men­tia, that steady slip­ping away, is the greater fear. It doesn’t help that the older you get, the more peo­ple you know to whom this is hap­pen­ing.

I men­tioned names in par­tic­u­lar ear­lier be­cause when one of my favourite un­cles was in a nurs­ing home with Alzheimer’s, I no­ticed he could not ever re­call names and I re­alised then how adrift we are when we can­not name places or peo­ple.

So­cial con­tact

Be­cause the fear is un­avoid­able it’s bet­ter to fo­cus on what we can do about this.

Ex­er­cise seems to mat­ter and so does cut­ting down on the drink­ing and cut­ting out smok­ing. Main­tain­ing so­cial con­tact also seems to help and the ev­i­dence be­hind this goes back decades.

As for me, I ex­er­cise any­way, I

It’s a telling ex­am­ple of how scared we are of de­men­tia in later life that for­get­ting a name can sud­denly seem like a sign of some­thing worse

don’t drink or smoke, I write, I do cour­ses in things I’m in­ter­ested in and that chal­lenge me. I am in touch with lots of peo­ple all the time.

My fa­ther suf­fered a good deal of con­fu­sion be­fore he died in his early 70s but my mother lived to be 91 and was clear as a bell be­fore a sud­den heart at­tack took her.


I hope the ge­netic cards fell the right way in my di­rec­tion, though the in­flu­ence of ge­net­ics isn’t clear – Alzheimer’s trans­mit­ted through fam­i­lies is, so far as I know, rare.

When all is said and done, though, and with life ex­pectancy grow­ing, the fear of de­men­tia is, like the fear of death it­self, a shadow we can­not quite shake off.

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