| 4 years ago

Dementia: A Public Health Concern With Personal, Occupational Consequences

Diseases associated with dementia are expected to more than triple by 2050, changing the occupational landscape and leading to personal and professional consequences.
Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that more than 5 million Americans are living with and even more are affected by. What’s more shocking, that number is projected to more than triple by 2050. It’s true that Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia deliver a plethora of personal struggles, but this public health concern also comes with occupational consequences.

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is a common reference to a decline in memory or other thinking skills. Alzheimer’s, one of the four main types of dementia, accounts for 60 to 70 percent of diagnoses. Other types include vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal dementia. 

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder that affects memory and cognitive function. Initial symptoms may include memory loss, getting lost, repeating questions, taking longer to complete daily tasks, displaying poor judgment, losing or misplacing things and mood or personality changes. 

As researchers continue to learn about Alzheimer’s, many questions surrounding the disease’s causes, risk factors and treatments persist. Lawrence Raymond, MD, medical director of Atrium Health Employer Solutions (formerly Carolinas HealthCare System), cites a host of potential risk factors, some of which are still in the early stages of research.  

Risk factors might include obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, lack of education, alcohol consumption or traumatic brain injury. Some studies suggest that hearing loss, proton pump inhibitors (heartburn medication) or exposure to air pollution might be connected to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s as well. But, by far, the most significant risk factor is age. “If you’re over 65, you’re at risk,” Dr. Raymond says. “And if you have a family history of someone who developed dementia younger, say in their 50s, then it’s all the more important to get on the preventive bandwagon as soon as possible.”

What Does This Have to Do With the Workforce?

Over the next five years, 32 percent of the workforce will be over the age of 65. It is more and more common to see people postponing their retirement or not retiring at all, which leads to an increased risk of employees suffering from the disease on the job. This, combined with longer life expectancies and the projected rise of dementia, suggests that the future occupational landscape may be altered by this public health issue.

“Workers are increasingly staying on the job after age 65, and that’s when dementia tends to rear its head,” Dr. Raymond explains. “Perhaps they transition to a new career later in life, or maybe they simply stay in their current job. Either way, to be an employer of choice, you need to make this issue your concern.” 

Dementia also impacts the workplace indirectly. While an employee might not suffer from Alzheimer’s themselves, he or she may be taking care of a parent, spouse or other loved one suffering from the disease. Caring for Alzheimer’s patients is physically and emotionally taxing, and proactive employers will recognize that these workers may require support.

How Can You Provide the Necessary Support to Suffering Employees?

If a worker begins to exhibit cognitive impairment consistent with dementia symptoms, employers may refer workers to the employee assistance program (EAP) or a physician. Employers should also make reasonable accommodations, such as narrowing the scope of responsibility, in an effort to keep the worker on the job and professionally engaged. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is one option for employees in the caretaker role, but employers can go beyond that by creating a support group or otherwise recognizing the demands of caretaking.