Oct 30, 2018

Diagnosed with dementia at 35: “It’s taken away the Megan we had”

Because dementia is commonly associated with old age, many don’t realise that the condition can be diagnosed in those as young as in their 30s.

In Australia, there are currently around 400,000 people living with dementia. Of those, nearly 26,000 have what is known as ‘younger onset dementia’, the term given to dementia when it is diagnosed in a person under the age of 65.

With the number of people in Australian with dementia forecast to reach more than a million by 2058, the number of younger people diagnosed with younger onset dementia is also expected to rise.

“It was the last thing we expected”

Sarah Wainwright’s sister Meagan Anderson was diagnosed with dementia at the age of only 35.

Sarah told Channel 9’s Today that Meagan’s behaviour began to change, and the family initially thought she had depression.

She became more socially withdrawn, even from friends and family, including her own children and then husband. She also stopped taking part in activities she’d previously enjoyed, such as watching the football.

Sarah said it was difficult to get Meagan to see a doctor, and initially, the diagnosis of dementia was missed.

But finally, a psychologist made the diagnosis that Meagan had frontotemporal dementia with the behavioural variant.

“It was the last thing we expected,” said Sarah.

Adrienne Withall, a dementia doctor and researcher, said because it’s very rare to develop dementia in your 30s, it can be difficult to get a correct diagnosis.

“It can look like depression, and it is often misdiagnosed as depression,” she said.

To describe the symptoms, Dr Withall said dementia wasn’t about forgetting where the keys are, but more like forgetting what the keys are for.

She said symptoms can include irritability, spending money recklessly, and even criminal activity that can land them in jail.

Dr Withall said that only about 20 per cent of those with younger onset dementia has the gene for the condition. Meagan doesn’t have the gene – her younger onset dementia is just a “cruel case”.

What can you do to reduce your risk of developing dementia?

To manage the risk factors associated with developing dementia you can:

  • Be lucky enough to have a good childhood education
  • Keep your mind active, try to keep learning throughout your life
  • Drink moderate amounts of coffee
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink – the recommendation is no more than two standard (100ml) drinks per day, and two alcohol-free days per week
  • Keep an eye on your blood pressure
  • Give up smoking
  • If you have diabetes, maintain your blood sugar levels within a healthy range
  • Ensure your cholesterol remains low, particularly from 40 years and onwards

“Blissfully unaware” and happy

Meagan now lives with her retired mother and father, and her two children visit every second weekend.

She has difficulty empathising with others, Sarah told Today, and needs constant supervision. But Meagan seems “blissfully unaware” of the cruel stroke of fate that has so dramatically altered her life. Meagan is happy, a consolation that makes it easier for Sarah to accept that the sister she knew is now gone.

“She has a very cruel disease,” said Sarah. “It’s taken away the Meagan we had.”

Image caption: Sarah, interviewed on the Today Show about her sister Meagan who is living with dementia. Image credit – Today Show.

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