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Dementia as an existential threat: the importance of self-esteem, social connectedness and meaning in life

Posted on 20. January, 2016.

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Dementia is an umbrella term for a large number of illnesses, all of which involve neurodegenerative changes in the brain. The most common forms of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, but there are over 100 other, rarer conditions. 

All of these different illnesses involve a progressive decline of cognitive functions in which symptoms gradually spread, so that eventually almost all areas of cognitive functioning are affected. Over time, these cognitive changes compromise the person’s practical ability to manage everyday activities,
leading to increasing levels of dependency on those around them. At present there is no cure for any form of dementia.
If we are to achieve an understanding of the psychological impact of dementia, then we also need to understand the way in which dementia acts as an existential threat. Dementia can compromise identity, challenge independence, prompt social isolation and threaten our ability to find meaning and purpose in life. Thus, a 2014 YouGov poll commissioned by Channel Five news in the UK found that fear of dementia was greater than fear of cancer, particularly amongst older people.
Over the last 20 years, an established body of literature has emerged that has detailed the way in which people respond to threats. To date, this body of work has been largely conducted from a social psychology perspective. However, we believe that the insights that have steadily accumulated may help us to develop a much better understanding of how people respond to dementia. This, in turn, may help us to improve a number of different areas of dementia care. 

Read the full article, free, in Science Progress, Volume 98, Number 4, December 2015, pp. 416-419.

Authors: Richard Cheston, Gary Christopher, Sanda Ismail

DOI: 10.3184/003685015X14467423210693

Image: MRI Image Of Head Showing Brain. Copyright: SpeedKingz