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Dementia survey highlights lack of awareness


Morgan Liotta


26/04/2024 3:58:17 PM

Australians generally know little about how to reduce risk, but there are ways to ‘bring cognition into the consulting room’.

Older person talking to GP
Nine in 10 people would seek help from a GP if they had signs of dementia, according to the AIHW.

Only one in three Australians feel confident about how to reduce their risk of dementia, and one in five mistakenly believe the condition is a normal part of the ageing process.
 
These findings come from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s (AIHW) Dementia Awareness Survey, the largest nationally representative community survey of its kind, which revealed an average general dementia knowledge score of 21 out of a maximum possible score of 50.
 
Conducted in 2023, the survey collected information on how much people know about dementia, as well as attitudes towards the condition and people living with it. Australians had an average risk score of 10.7 out of 28, and a misconception score of 2.0 out of 12, suggesting knowledge is low when it comes to evidence-based ways to reduce modifiable risk factors and the ability to identify inaccuracies around risk-reduction behaviours.
 
Dr Stephanie Daly is a GP with a special interest in dementia and coordinator of the RACGP Specific Interests Dementia sub-group.
 
She told newsGP the report offers great insights to link with GPs’ central role in providing preventive health and modifiable lifestyle advice for dementia risk reduction.
 
‘These results definitely highlight there is some way to go with education and public awareness campaigns on the common risk factors as well as the less known ones,’ she said.
 
‘It is not surprising that people are unsure of the knowledge. Whilst it’s good to hear that people are becoming more aware, there are still many groups in society that the message is not reaching.
 
‘As a GP it is important that we raise the concept of brain health, like we do heart health, as people may be motivated to make changes to their lifestyle if they knew it was to aid risk reduction in terms of dementia.’
 
According to the AIHW, nine in 10 (89%) people would seek help from a GP if they had signs of dementia, while around 51% would seek help from another specialist, and 39% from family or friends.
 
The survey outlined key modifiable risk and protective factors of dementia to gauge levels of risk knowledge. A large proportion of respondents were able to recognise key dementia risk factors, but most answered with ‘agree’ rather than ‘strongly agree’, suggesting a lack of confidence around knowledge of dementia risk factors.
 
Correctly recognising dementia risk and the main protective factors were reported for:

  • being physically active – 77%
  • being cognitively active, ie continually learning new things – 77%
  • being socially active – 70%
  • reducing alcohol consumption – 72%
  • preventing head injuries – 70%.
Around one in three (35%) knew that avoiding air pollution – added to the dementia risk timeline in 2020 – could reduce their risk of dementia.
 
These findings come as dementia is a growing concern, with more than 400,000 Australians living with the condition – a number projected to double by 2058. It also carries the highest burden of disease in people aged over 65.
 
While the awareness survey suggests that almost all Australians (99.6%) do one or more things that can reduce their risk of developing dementia, they are five times more likely to take actions for ‘other reasons’ than for dementia risk reduction.
 
However, four in five (83%) agreed they would be more likely to adopt lifestyle changes if they knew it may help them reduce their risk of dementia.
 
Dr Daly said given the majority of people come to their GP if they have signs of dementia, this is an opportune time to raise more awareness. She has previously discussed the benefits of brain health checks in reducing stigma around symptoms and risk factor management.
 
‘I would advocate that GPs introduce the concept of a brain health check to their consultations, particularly in mid-life but also as people age,’ she said.
 
‘This will act as a way of bringing cognition into the consulting room, de-stigmatising it but also help raise awareness and hopefully motivate people to take steps to protect their brains as they age.’
 
Dementia knowledge is higher among women, people who have personal experience with people living with dementia, those with higher levels of education and household income, and those born in English-speaking countries.
 
AIHW spokesperson Melanie Dunford said the Dementia Awareness Survey is an important step to ‘reinforce the urgent need’ for raising national awareness about dementia and risk reduction.
 
‘[It also helps to] tackle the stigma and discrimination that many people living with dementia tell us they experience once diagnosed,’ she said.
 
‘By identifying which groups of people know less about dementia, education and awareness campaigns can be better targeted and more effective.’
 
The study also highlighted commonly held stereotypes about people with dementia, revealing around two in three (67%) respondents believe people with dementia need constant supervision and are unpredictable.
 
Dr Daly said these results further indicate the misconceptions that come with the disease, which can also contribute to delayed diagnoses.
 
‘People still believe that those living with dementia need constant supervision, whereas actually many people are living relatively independently in the community for some time before more support is needed,’ she said.
 
‘This stereotype is perhaps one of the reasons that people do not seek a diagnosis.’
 
Another misconception is that dementia is often believed to be a natural part of ageing – although most common risk factor, dementia itself is not a normal part of ageing, Dr Daly highlights.
 
Around one in five (22%) of those surveyed agreed with the statement that ‘dementia is a normal part of the ageing process’, by indicating it as ‘true’ or ‘probably true’.
 
Meanwhile, more than four in five (83%) respondents believe that people with dementia can enjoy life, three in four (77%) did not fear people with dementia, and fewer than one in 10 would exclude a person with dementia (8.3%) or ignore them (4.8%).
 
The AIHW says the survey’s results will help inform priorities and areas for dementia awareness initiatives and prevention activities that can reduce the risk, or delay the development of dementia.
 
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