Dr Clare Bailey: Could my mother’s forgetfulness be dementia?

Q: My mother has developed severe memory problems. She is in her early 80s and dismisses her symptoms as just ‘old-age forgetfulness’. She becomes angry and distressed if I suggest she goes to a memory clinic. How can I help her?

A: I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s memory problems. I sometimes see this heartbreaking situation in my surgery when a concerned relative brings in their determinedly independent elderly parent or aunt under the guise of ‘a corn on their foot’ or ‘a bit of a skin problem’, before voicing their real fear about memory loss.

Dementia affects one in six people over the age of 80. The signs include becoming forgetful and muddled about times, places and events, repeating questions and stories, and difficulty retaining information. What prompts people to seek advice is usually an event such as going out in nightclothes, leaving the cooker on or a bath overflowing.

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Sadly, there are no treatments that can reliably stop or reverse dementia. Medications such as donepezil or memantine can temporarily improve some symptoms and may slow progression of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s (side effects can include dizziness, tiredness, raised blood pressure and constipation). And these small improvements can buy precious time and independence.

Personalities, too, can change. You might notice the person becoming more rigid or aggressive, feeling threatened and fearful or having uncharacteristic outbursts of anger. Conversely, someone who has been cantankerous most of their life might become more easy-going. Apathy and depression can occur too and agitation is very common. Any of these changes could cause your mother to be resistant to your (very reasonable) desire to help. Avoiding confrontation while maintaining good communication and a positive attitude are key, although this requires considerable patience. Your mother may also need extra reassurance as decisions become harder for her.

You have recognised the need – and the challenge – of having her assessed at a hospital memory clinic but a visit to her GP may feel less threatening and you could go with her. The GP can arrange blood tests to exclude other causes of confusion as well as discuss a memory clinic referral and treatment options. If your mother is really reluctant to see the GP, arrange a home visit. Having a diagnosis will help you access medical and social support as well as legal and financial advice, such as power of attorney and fitness to drive.

Organisations such as Dementia UK are great sources of information and the Alzheimer’s Society also runs a national helpline on 0300 222 1122. With support your mother should be able to live as independent, contented and active a life as possible.

A clever way to cut carbs

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For ten days I have been wearing a Freestyle Libre, a sensor patch attached to my arm that gives read-outs of my blood sugar in real time. I’ve been curious to see how different foods affect my levels. After a sandwich and packet of crisps my blood sugar shoots up – no surprise there, they are full of refined carbs. On the other hand, going for a generous curry, staying low-carb by skipping the naan, having cauliflower instead of potato and only minimal rice barely causes a blip. Although the results are what I would expect, it is still a good reminder that reducing starchy carbs can instantly make a favourite meal healthier. Abbott Freestyle Libre One Sensor, £69.99, chemist-4-u.com.

My ZZZ-factor bedtime drink

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Before I go to bed I sometimes have a small glass of milk with inulin powder, a prebiotic plant fibre said to boost gut bacteria and help you sleep. I also love the taste. Bimuno Prebiotic Powder, £15.45, amazon.co.uk