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Young Onset Dementia in the Workplace 

July 31, 2017 / Corporate Wellness

As the number of dementia cases grow, it’s easy to understand why organizations like Alzheimer’s Disease International believe there is a potential future epidemic. Unlike the current obesity epidemic, where symptoms are visible, the effects of dementia often remain hidden from view in the workplace and can affect business performance. Organizations can play a significant role in driving healthy behaviors that help reduce the risk of dementia and other diseases in their workforce.

The number of people living with dementia worldwide in 2015 was estimated at 46.8 million and projected to reach 75 million by 2030 and 131.5 million by 2050. Although often viewed as an illness of the elderly, dementia is increasingly affecting those of working age (usually between 30 and 65 years old). It is estimated that 42,325 people in the UK have been diagnosed with young onset dementia. Because awareness among doctors is relatively low, when those who are affected are in the workforce, their symptoms are often attributed to stress or depression.

Dementia is a degeneration of the brain that causes a progressive decline in people’s cognitive functions – ability to think, concentrate, reason, communicate and memorize.  There are several forms of dementia, but Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, contributing to 60–70% of all cases. The onset of cognitive impairment quickly compromises their ability to carry out complex but essential tasks in daily life. In addition, people living with dementia will have increasing difficulties meeting their basic personal care needs. With a slow, and often insidious onset with poor early recognition, there is an impact on personal and business performance with a clear impact on productivity and profitability.

It has been believed that aging plays the greatest role in dementia development, and consequently, there was nothing an individual can do to prevent the condition. Given the current absence of disease-modifying treatments, and increasing awareness that symptoms develop over many years, there has been growing interest in identifying effective strategies for prevention or delayed onset of dementia.

Increasing evidence demonstrates that modification of lifestyle risk factors and manageable health conditions can significantly prevent or delay onset. A review by Deborah E Barnes, Kristine Yaffe in the Lancet showed that up to half of Alzheimer’s cases are potentially attributable to modifiable risk factors, such as smoking and exercise. In addition, the lack of physical activity is associated with increased risk of several cardiovascular risk factors— e.g., diabetes, hypertension, and obesity that in turn are associated with increased risk of dementia. Midlife obesity, hypertension, and diabetes potentially contribute to a substantial proportion of cases, so early recognition and appropriate interventions may well reduce the risk of dementia.

Given the irreversible impact of dementia on individuals, their families and their productivity, organizations that implement a wellbeing program to address and improve key lifestyle and health factors will help ensure an engaged workforce in the near term and a healthy and productive one in the future. Ultimately, and on a much larger scale, there needs to be a paradigm shift in mindset for individuals, doctors and business leaders to instill lifestyle changes now that prevent a major health problem over the course of the next 30 years.

Dr. David C. Batman, Specialist Consultant in Occupational Medicine, Virgin Pulse Science Advisory Board Member

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