Steve Coleman, loving husband, father and a hard worker in his prime, seemed to have it all. Until he was diagnosed with dementia at age 43.

Three years ago Coleman started suffering hallucinations, lack of appetite, headaches and disturbed sleep until, eventually, he had to give up work. Earlier this year the 43-year-old was diagnosed with a form of dementia.

His wife Sonya, 37, gave up work two years ago to be Steve’s full-time carer and says the disease, which causes Parkinson’s-like symptoms including tremors and memory loss, completely changed her husband’s life. “He has days where he can talk to you on the phone and make great sense and the next day he can’t remember how to make a coffee,” she says.

The couple is living a life they thought they wouldn’t be facing until they were at least in their 80s. “You start thinking about things like wheelchairs and power-of-attorney – all the things you think you wouldn’t be thinking about at this stage in your life when other people are planning holidays and making money,” Sonya says.

Steve’s story is not an isolated case and is just the tip of the iceberg of  figures that show the number of people diagnosed with dementia at a younger age is increasing. In 2011 more than 23,000 Australians under 65 were diagnosed, up 7000 from the year before, and more than 3000 of them are Queenslanders. According to Deloitte Access Economics the number of Queenslanders diagnosed with dementia will more than double to about 6800 by 2050 while it is estimated cases will rise 254 per cent among the national population.

Although there is no clear explanation for the increase, Alzheimer’s Australia Queensland CEO Victoria Beedle believes improved diagnostic technology could be having an impact. Beedle is aware of one case in Brisbane of a 24-year-old with dementia but says that is rare and the majority of “younger” patients are diagnosed between the ages of 42 and 46.

Beedle says it can take more than two years to properly diagnose dementia as symptoms are similar to those caused by stress, depression, delirium and anxiety. The early signs, which include progressive and regular memory loss, confusion, personality change, apathy, withdrawal from social situations and loss of ability to perform everyday tasks, can be subtle and creep up over a number of years.

Alzheimer’s Australia Queensland client services manager and registered nurse Kate Hawkins says many patients find it quite challenging and frustrating explaining their condition to others. “A lot of people don’t realise it’s not an old person’s disease, it can affect people of all ages,” she says.

Hawkins says while every case is different dementia generally affects people in three stages: early onset (where a patient may have difficulty communicating and managing everyday tasks); moderate (needing instruction and help to complete tasks such as showering, brushing teeth and cooking) and later stages (forgetfulness increases and the patient may require 24-hour care). “We have lots of people with younger onset dementia who are living very fulfilling lives, very active in the community, they just need people to understand and help with support now and then,” Hawkins says.

There is no cure and Beedle says that is why it is important to look at brain health now and take up new challenges such as the Alzheimer’s Australia Your Brain Matters program. “We are encouraging people to do that crossword or Sudoku and challenge the brain, do something that is out of your comfort zone,” she says.

Keep your brain healthy
•    Avoid harmful substances – excessive drinking and drug abuse can damage brain cells
•    Challenge yourself – keep mentally active
•    Relax – tension may prolong memory loss
•    Eat a balanced diet
•    Concentrate on what you want to remember
•    Minimise and resist distractions
•    Use a notepad and carry a calendar
•    Organise yourself
•    Repeat names of new acquaintances in conversation

Source: Alzheimer’s Australia

For more information call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.