What can families do to help someone with DS and AD?
Dementia is difficult to diagnose in those with DS, since they already may have varying degrees of intellectual disabilities or hearing or vision loss. A physician who specializes in intellectual disabilities may better understand how to test whether someone has dementia symptoms. Resources, support groups, and education have recently become available for families for example via the National Institutes of Health Down syndrome Resource page (1) and the National Down syndrome Society (https://www.ndss.org). Dementia associated with DS requires specialist care and a better understanding of biological mechanisms involved, but persons with DS often do not get the help they need since there is a lack of resources for clinical treatment of dementia in DS. Other age-related conditions may affect performance on learning and memory tasks. For example, a vision or hearing loss affects someone’s ability to understand and do the tasks. Sleep apnea – which is extremely common in those with DS – can highly affect someone’s ability to perform well on these tasks as well. Therefore, finding out if someone has these other conditions can help distinguish them from true dementia.
Families often ask if there are lifestyle changes that can help slow the progression of dementia in those with DS and AD. We know a lot more about lifestyle and dementia in the general population, but recent studies have suggested that moderate amounts of exercise (such as walking or using a treadmill) can slow the progression of dementia also in DS. Persons with DS are often overweight in their middle-age and obesity has been connected strongly with inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, although not proven specifically for DS. Finally, there are diets that affect dementia and AD pathology in the brain. So-called “anti-oxidant” diets (that will stave off the oxidative stress mentioned above) include salmon, green leafy vegetables, blueberries, acai, and dragon fruit. Ingredients found in green tea have been tested in a population of older adults with DS and had some effects on memory function. In general, it is safe to say that healthy habits that have proven effective on dementia prevention in the general population will also benefit those with DS, although research is still being conducted.