Could different cultures teach us something about dementia?

August 17, 2018 by Richard Gunderman And Lily Wolf, The Conversation
Other cultures view dementia differently. Could they help us be better caregivers? Credit: BlurryMe/

Picture two different families, each dealing with a diagnosis of dementia in one of its members. In one case, the patient is a retired executive, whose family tries as long as possible to keep the diagnosis secret, relying primarily on professional caregivers and eventually a nursing home. In another case, the patient is a grandmother. As soon as the diagnosis is suspected, her family pulls together, bringing her into their home and surrounding her with affection.

These two approaches to reflect very different attitudes toward the disease. One regards it as an irreversible neurologic condition associated with considerable stigma, a problem best left to health professionals and kept out of public view. While not denying that dementia is a medical condition, the other seizes on it as an opportunity to draw together around a loved one in need, giving members not a secret to keep but an opportunity to care.

A disease of patients and their families

Dementias touch many lives. For example, the most common dementia, Alzheimer's disease, currently afflicts 5.7 million Americans and is expected to afflict 14 million by 2050. This increase partly mirrors population growth. But because risk increases with age, the rise also reflects our success in battling other causes of death, such as heart disease and stroke, enabling people to live longer. And the effects of the disease are not confined to patients; 16.1 million Americans now provide uncompensated care to .

If you asked a physician to define dementia, most of us would probably describe it as a neurodegenerative disorder marked by declining cognitive abilities and memory. While this account is true as far as it goes, there is a problem: attacking most types of dementia as strictly biological entities has largely failed to advance our ability to diagnose and treat it. In the case of Alzheimer's disease, definitive diagnosis still requires a biopsy, and new drugs to prevent, retard, or reverse it have proved disappointing.

A cultural perspective

Perhaps the time has come to expand our thinking about dementia to encompass not only cellular but cultural perspectives. Our society needs to recognize that dementia is not only a brain disorder of the person suffering from it but also a social disorder that can be understood in a variety of different ways. In other contexts, such disorders tend to be viewed in light of a larger circle of social relationships and cultural traditions. All generalizations must be qualified, but we have much to learn from other cultures.

In Japan, for example, to age well is not only to avoid contracting diseases but also to maintain a circle of family and friends right up to the moment when we breathe our last. Being of sound mind and body means continuing to exert ourselves both mentally and physically, remaining deeply invested in our personal relationships and receiving help from and helping others. So long as we continue to enrich others' lives, we can remain "whole" in ways that exceed the mere absence of a medical diagnosis.

A large segment of traditional Chinese culture tends to see such matters similarly. Confucianism places a premium on family, and the decline of cognitive capacities of those who have led long and full lives can be seen not as the onset of a disease but as an opportunity for friends and family to express how much they care. Assuming increasing responsibility for an aging loved one represents an opportunity to show how strong the family really is.

The Hindu culture of India also prizes the opportunity to care for parents. What Americans tend to regard as a lamentable can be seen as a part of life's natural cycle and the passage into a second childhood. The emphasis is not on the stigma of dementia, but rather on a withdrawal from worldly affairs to focus on other more essential matters. When an older person begins to show such signs, it is time for a natural transfer of authority to younger members of the family.

Seeing dementia anew

Viewing dementia from the standpoint of other cultures can help Americans see it with fresh eyes and re-pose fundamental questions that lie at its heart. What, for example, is a person, and how is personhood situated in the larger context of family and community? How does such a condition relate to what it means to be a good person and lead a good life? To what degree does dementia fracture us and what are the possibilities that it could bring us closer together?

The point of such a cultural approach is not to argue that biomedical accounts of dementia are fundamentally wrong. In virtually any disease state, but especially with a condition such as dementia, the experience of patients and families involves social, moral, and even spiritual perspectives, no less than biological ones. Perhaps because of our high regard for self-sufficiency and independence, dementia in the U.S. it tends to be relatively stigmatized.

Conceiving of dementia in different terms could offer new opportunities for prevention and treatment. Suppose, for example, that we Americans viewed it in terms similar to physical fitness. If we do not utilize our mental, physical, and social capacities, they will tend to dwindle – use it or lose it. On the other hand, if we remain active and challenged in each of these spheres, contributing where we can to enrich the lives of others, we can ease the strain of dementia in our lives.

To be sure, healthy neurons require adequate rest, nutrition, and even medical care. But the health of a person is more than the functioning of cells. People also need opportunities to put abilities to the test, connect with others, and lead lives that make a real contribution. If we tend not only to our neurons but also our intellects, characters, and relationships, there is good reason to think that we can lighten dementia's burden and make the most of the opportunities to care for those living with it.

Explore further: Study finds delay in initial dementia diagnosis

Related Stories

Study finds delay in initial dementia diagnosis

March 15, 2018
A study conducted by a multidisciplinary Spectrum Health neurology team has found that dementia patients are not undergoing evaluation at the onset of the dementia process, a delay that prevents early, beneficial treatment.

Dementia trend shows later onset with fewer years of the disease

April 23, 2018
The diagnosis is one that a family never wants to hear: Your father has Alzheimer's disease. Your mother has stroke-related dementia.

Clinicians should address needs of family caregivers of persons with dementia

December 5, 2016
More than 15 million family members and other unpaid caregivers provide care to persons living with dementia in the United States. Yet the current healthcare environment and reimbursement models emphasize obligations toward ...

Hospitals often missing dementia despite prior diagnosis

April 24, 2018
Hospitals in the UK are increasingly likely to recognise that a patient has dementia after they've been admitted for a different reason, finds a new UCL-led study, but it is still only recognised in under two-thirds of people.

Addressing dementia's identity crisis

December 5, 2016
Dementia should be understood more as a disability, rather than a disease, with a greater emphasis placed on supporting those who care for people with the condition, according to a new report from the Social Care Workforce ...

What it's really like to live with dementia

July 20, 2017
More than 225,000 people develop dementia every year – that's roughly one person every three minute. At the moment, 850,000 people in the UK are living with dementia. This figure is set to rise to two million by 2051.

Recommended for you

Meditation and music may alter blood markers of cellular aging and Alzheimer's disease

November 13, 2018
A research team led by Dr. Kim Innes, a professor in the West Virginia University School of Public Health, has found that a simple meditation or music listening program may alter certain biomarkers of cellular aging and Alzheimer's ...

Alzheimer's and cardiovascular disease share common genetics in some patients

November 9, 2018
Genetics may predispose some people to both Alzheimer's disease and high levels of blood lipids such as cholesterol, a common feature of cardiovascular disease, according to a new study by an international team of researchers ...

Artificial intelligence predicts Alzheimer's years before diagnosis

November 6, 2018
Artificial intelligence (AI) technology improves the ability of brain imaging to predict Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published in the journal Radiology.

Diabetes medications may reduce Alzheimer's disease severity

November 1, 2018
People with Alzheimer's disease who were treated with diabetes drugs showed considerably fewer markers of the disease—including abnormal microvasculature and disregulated gene expressions—in their brains compared to Alzheimer's ...

Massive study confirms that loneliness increases risk of dementia

October 29, 2018
A new Florida State University College of Medicine study involving data from 12,000 participants collected over 10 years confirms the heavy toll that loneliness can take on your health: It increases your risk of dementia ...

Bioactive compound from the Rhodiola plant improves memory

October 25, 2018
In an ageing society, more people are suffering from memory disorders. The progressive loss of memory severely impairs the quality of life of those affected. So far, no drugs are known to prevent age-related cognitive decline.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.