Dementia on the rise in Sri Lanka

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The Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation (LAF), recently, noted that Sri Lanka will have an estimated half a million people suffering from dementia by 2050 as the country has the fastest ageing population in the region.

A spokesman for the Foundation said on 2 September that the risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia increases with age. Evidence was emerging that Covid-19 may increase the risk of developing dementia later in life.

(The relevant news was published in Ceylon Today 4 September Sunday Edition).

Ceylon Today spoke to Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe, Consultant Psychiatrist, National Institute of Mental Health about the situation.

Dr. Ranasinghe said dementia levels in the country were on the rise because of the poor routine, pressure and because people are having secondary lifestyles as well as their poorly managed diabetes and heart disease.

“Dementia levels are definitely increasing however; we cannot come to an exact figure. Dementia will definitely be a real problem in Sri Lanka in the future, that is true. Exact figures are not calculable because of relaxed community services,” he said.

What is dementia?

Dr. Ranasinghe explained that dementia is a disease of the brain where an individual would gradually lose his/her intellectual functions that would result in functional impairment. Ultimately, they become dependent to the point where they live their day-to-day lives with the support of others, he said.

“While the disease of the brain is different because there are a large number of disorders that could result in the damage of brain cells. And as a result of gradual damage of the brain cells they could lose their mental abilities, physical abilities and combative abilities. Gradually they will lose their ability to function independently”, he added.

Preparations to deal with the situation

Dr. Ranasinghe lamented that as a country Sri Lanka is not very well prepared for such a situation.

“We are poorly prepared to deal with such a situation. Systemwise, the Government is not prepared so is the Health Ministry. We have mainly hospital-based services. That is also mostly in Colombo only. Not only the health services even the social services are not prepared to deal with such a situation. The culture, systems and organisations are not prepared to handle dementia in Sri Lanka. Even physical accessibility in hospital is poor so is it in other institutions,” he said.

Root cause

Dr. Ranasinghe said the rise in the percentage is not a sudden situation and it has been increasing gradually for quite some time now.

“It is not sudden. It has been gradually happening since urbanisation started rapidly in Sri Lanka. People are moving from simple extended families to nuclear families. Therefore, the elderly tend to live alone. On the average, they are not physically active and do not engage with society as well. They could be living in isolation”, he said.

Nevertheless, he said people live longer because they are being looked after when it comes to medical issues with the technology in the industry. When people live longer, incidents of dementia are high. Therefore, gradually dementia levels among the elderly is on the rise, he said.

Do we have sufficient health care?

Dementia management is not only medication, dementia management needs a lot of training – from doctors to primary care and health care workers as well as the assessments and places to look after patients, he said.

Dr. Ranasinghe further said health care workers, social workers, systems and institutions that are looking after the well-being of people must be trained to deal with the situation.

He said people were silently suffering in their own homes without access to medical attention and unaware that dementia was taking its toll. He also said, there was a lack of awareness of the subject. People are going through various other moderate health treatment like traditional methods or even mythical treatment and then find themselves in helpless situations, he said.

Dementia with the current crisis

“Elders are anyway neglected with the current crisis. There is likelihood that the problem of dementia and elderly mental health will be overlooked. People with dementia do not do well with poverty. They need specialised care. Therefore, poverty is going to have a huge impact on the well-being and mental health of the elderly. We are planning a media campaign to handle the situation amid the crisis in the future. Just because there is a crisis, we cannot neglect certain things and let people die,” Dr. Ranasinghe emphasised.

BY Aloka Kasturiarachchi