Why are people with dementia frequently admitted to hospital? Is there anything we could do to prevent this happening? And how reliable is any of this research? These were some of the questions academic researcher Jiawen Sharon Liu, from the Social Innovation Partnership, was asking when she spent two months working in the offices of Unforgettable.
Dementia is a very complex condition with many different symptoms and causes so when I started my research, looking closely at the reasons why people with dementia are admitted to hospital, I expected the answers to be quite varied and medically complex…but they weren’t. In fact, what surprised me most was how similar and straightforward many of the reasons were for hospital admission; pneumonia, urinary tract Infections, malnutrition and falls seemed most prevalent. My research showed that these are all conditions which don’t generally need complex, medical interventions or invasive surgery and could often be avoided by rather simple changes in lifestyle.
My research was fascinating. In the past dementia has been seen as a death sentence, a condition without a cure. But I discovered a huge amount of work which is now going on into early diagnosis, including products that can detect dementia long before symptoms actually set in. The hope is that if dementia can be diagnosed early enough, lots can be done to make the journey easier and to avoid some of the most common current reasons for hospital admissions.
For example, if a person with dementia has already improved safety in their home, they’re less likely to fall or have an accident. If they’re already eating and drinking healthily and frequently, they’re less likely to suffer from malnutrition or develop a UTI.
Of course some types of dementia are hereditary but DNA profiling is now so inexpensive that it’s becoming more accessible to everyone and if it leads a person to discover they are at high risk of developing dementia, a few lifestyle changes such as reducing alcohol intake and improving your diet, could definitely prove beneficial.
So where did I get the evidence to support my research? Well, there are lots of sources available to anyone who goes online but they aren’t necessarily all good ones! If you start googling randomly and see some really scary or morbid statistics, don’t be too disheartened. Some of the most depressing statistics could be based on research which is rather old, (try looking for the original date the study was published) and wasn’t conducted in the UK, or which only involved a very small number of people.
I came across several sources myself which seemed reliable but were not current, for example some studies which are still available online date back to the 1980s when dementia wasn’t as well understood as it is today.
The good news is that the best sources are usually publicly available and fairly easy to find, such as the Alzheimer’s Society, or are backed by the government, such as Public Health England. Information from either of these sources will have gone through rigorous quality checks before being published.
The trouble is, research takes time. Whilst new studies are currently underway they aren’t likely to be published in the next five years, but try not to let this dismay you because all the most recent research we do have indicates a definite downward trend in death rates from dementia and an increase in earlier diagnosis.
Whatever the next five or ten years bring, we know that dementia research is moving quickly and offers many reasons for hope.
Jiawen Sharon Liu is an academic researcher from Singapore and currently studying for an MSc in Statistics at University College London.
UPDATE: Look for a new eBook coming from Unforgettable on how to avoid going in hospital if you have dementia – coming soon!