The truth about dementia: Inside the lives of those affected

Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia. We take an inside look at this silent killer. 

The number of Australians currently living with dementia has soared to more than 413,000 people. 

A recent report commissioned by Alzheimer's Australia estimates the cost to the community to be more than $14 billion this year alone, with 244 new cases presenting every day. 

And as the population ages, the number of people with dementia is only going to rise.

If nothing is done, it's estimated that a staggering 1.1 million of us will be affected by 2056 and will cost Australia more than $1 trillion.

What is dementia 

Dementia is the name used to describe a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain.

While there are many different types, the hallmark of dementia is the inability to carry out everyday activities as a consequence of diminished cognitive ability.

Dementia can strike anyone, but the risk increases with age, with the disease most comonly affecting people over the age of 65 years. 

Dr Jennifer Bute was diagnosed with early onset dementia in her fifties, as seen in The Truth About Dementia. She spent 25 years working as a GP before the disease struck.

“I started getting lost,” she explains about those first moments she began to recognise the symptoms in herself. “I couldn't find my way to the surgery after 25 years. And then I'd be coming home and I'd phone up my husband I'd say, ‘I don't know whether I go right or left here’.”  

Then one day, she didn’t even recognise her husband. “He said he'll never forget the look of horror on my face. I didn't know who he was. It was terrifying.”

Coping strategies

The main symptoms Jennifer displays are not being able to remember things – simple things like whether she’s already eaten or had anything to drink on a daily basis.

“I can't remember whether I eat or not, so the only thing that works for me is to put my dirty washing-up in the sink - so I can see exactly what I've had.” 

It's coping strategies like these, that means Jennifer can continue to live independently. She also uses special QR codes and her iPad to view videos that remind her how to perform simple tasks – from making a cup of tea, to locking the door to flushing the toilet.

Jennifer maintains a very positive outlook on her condition and views it as both a challenge and a way to help others that are suffering. She currently runs a memory group twice a week at a retirement community in Devon, UK - as research suggests that simple mental exercises or ‘brain training’ can transform the lives of people with dementia.

“Sometimes I do sit and howl when everything falls apart, but then I pull myself together and realise that I just have to find a way to make it work and do it better... and to find a new coping strategy.”

Jennifer was brought up with the mindset that it’s not what happens to you, but how you cope and respond to it. “We all have challenges as we get older,” she deliberates. “Some people get cancer, some people have strokes, we all have things that we have to deal with.”

“And we all have choices, don't we? We can curl up in a ball and die and turn our face to the wall, but what a waste of time and what a waste of opportunity. So for me, this is my challenge.”

Use it or lose it 

While there is no cure for dementia at present, it's important that those at risk are identified early as there are several drug treatment options that can help reduce symptoms. 

Plus, support is absolutely vital for sufferers along with their families, friends and carers - and can make a huge difference to managing the condition.

There is also research to suggest that keeping your brain active - particularly during mid-life (from 40 to 65 years of age) - may help delay the onset of dementia. 

According to neuroscientist Dr Thomas Bak, learning a second lanaguage can delay the onset of dementia by four years, because it works as a kind of "exercsie for the brain."

 "I compare learning languages with what sport, let's say swimming, does to our body," he explains in The Turth About Dementia. "If we go swimming regularly, we'll be fitter. Using one or more languages is a good mental exercise."

Challenging the brain with a new activity helps build new brain cells and strenghten connections - making the brain more resilient and giving it more "reserve" if it is damaged by disease. 

Other social activities that can be benefical for brain health include: Organising cards or games nights with friends, learning to play a musical instrument or catching up with a friend over a walk.

Read More: What to do if you think a loved one might have dementia 

Alzheimer’s Australia provides a free specialist counselling service for people with dementia, their families and carers. Call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 50 or visit

Don't miss 'The Truth About Dementia' at 9.30pm on Sunday April 23 on Lifetyle YOU. Encore: 10.55am and 5.25pm Sunday, April 30.

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