Undiagnosed Dementia: A Senior Safety Risk

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerJuly 25, 2016

A new study analyzed the habits of nearly 7,600 people to learn more about how a formal dementia diagnosis impacts daily behaviors that may be dangerous for a person living with the disease. The study found that while people with undiagnosed dementia were less likely to engage in potentially dangerous activities such as driving or cooking hot meals, they were also more likely to engage in these behaviors than people who had  been formally diagnosed.

Learn more about this study and the hidden dangers of living with undiagnosed dementia.

How Undiagnosed Dementia Can Lead to Unsafe Behaviors

A new study recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society  found that older adults who demonstrated symptoms of dementia but were not formally diagnosed were nearly twice as likely to take on activities that could put them in danger when compared to seniors who had received a formal diagnosis.

The study, led by Dr. Halima Amjad of the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at Johns Hopkins, evaluated data from over 7,600 adults over the age of 65. All participants were active in the National Health and Aging Trends study (NHATS). As part of the study, each participant gave regular interviews with researchers and participated in cognitive and physical tests.

Researchers divided participants into four groups:

  1. Adults who were formally diagnosed with dementia.
  2. Adults who showed signs of dementia based on cognitive test scores but were not formally diagnosed.
  3. Adults who may have dementia.
  4. Adults who did not show any signs of dementia.

The research team then observed how active each group was in activities that could be unsafe for someone living with dementia like administering medication, cooking a hot meal, driving and managing finances.

Undiagnosed Dementia Increases Participation in Unsafe Activities

Researchers found that, when compared to adults who were formally diagnosed with dementia, seniors whose dementia was undiagnosed were more likely to participate in activities that could cause them harm.

“When patients receive a formal dementia diagnosis, their families are typically aware that, at some point, their loved ones will not be able to drive or will need more help with their medicine,” explains Dr. Amjad. “But when people are undiagnosed, families and friends may ignore or be unaware of functional problems that already exist.”

For example:

  • Nearly 28% of seniors with undiagnosed dementia were still driving, while only 17% of seniors with diagnosed dementia were driving
  • 29% of seniors with undiagnosed with dementia were still managing their finances, compared to 12% of seniors with diagnosed dementia
  • 50% of adults with undiagnosed dementia still managed their medication, but only 22% of people with diagnosed dementia did

However, the study also noted that people with undiagnosed dementia were, in general, less likely to engage in potentially unsafe activities when compared to seniors with possible dementia or no signs of dementia.

Dr. Amjad noted, “That in itself is good news, though the numbers are still important from a public health and safety standpoint. Either the patients themselves or their family members are self-regulating and doing these activities less frequently as their disease is progressing.”

Have you noticed a change in your loved one’s behavior following a formal dementia diagnosis? Has undiagnosed dementia posed a risk to a senior in your life? Share your experiences with us in the comments below. 

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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