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Dementia diagnosis increases suicide risk -

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Dementia diagnosis increases suicide risk

The World Today - Wednesday, 3 June , 2009 12:30:00

Reporter: Meredith Griffiths

PETER CAVE: Doctors are being warned that an early diagnosis of dementia increases the likelihood
of suicide.

Associate Professor Brian Draper from the University of New South Wales says that one study has
found that people who were diagnosed with Alzheimer's early are eight to 10 times more likely to
take their own lives.

He'll tell a conference in Adelaide this week that doctors need to offer better support.

Meredith Griffiths reports.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: It used to be that a diagnosis of Alzheimer's came well after the disease had
begun to take its toll.

But greater understanding of the condition means many more people are now are made aware of what
will happen to them before they're suffering symptoms.

GLENN REES: Dementia is a condition that people are fearful of, they've got a general understanding
that they will lose many of their cognitive capacities, communication, feeling, emotional swing, a
whole set of things will change their lives forever.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Glenn Rees is the chief executive of Alzheimer's Australia, which is running a
national conference in Adelaide this week.

One of the speakers says the stress and trauma of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's means people are
at a higher risk of taking their own lives.

Dr Brian Draper is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales.

He says that a Danish study published last year found that people aged 50 to 70 diagnosed with
dementia were eight to 10 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

BRIAN DRAPER: Whenever a study like this is done, it's important of course to get what we call
replication in other populations, trouble is there aren't many places around the world where there
is the capacity to get that kind of information that way.

It does seem to tally in though with what we call anecdotal reports, case reports of people with
early onset dementia having seemingly, making self-harm attempts at rates that weren't previously
felt to be happening.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Dr Draper says it's becoming more of an issue now because people are being
diagnosed earlier.

He says that despite the greater risks, suicides are still relatively rare.

But he says doctors need to be more careful about how they break the news to people and make sure
they have support mechanisms in place.

BRIAN DRAPER: We need to adopt a style of management of bad news that's being done in areas such as
Huntington's disease, where there are very clear guidelines for giving information about genetic

So we need to start looking at the sort of approaches that is there by making sure that we are
getting good counselling to people in those first few months.

Not just about the diagnosis, but about the whole aspects of the situation that they might face.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Glenn Rees from Alzheimer's Australia agrees doctors could do more.

GLENN REES: If you talk to any person with dementia or their carer, one of their primary concerns
will be about the lack of time that doctors can spend with them, the lack of referral to services,
the poor ways sometimes the diagnosis is communicated.

As an organisation, in the context of the Government's primary care review, we've suggested that a
number one priority for the Government ought to be a systematic look at how primary care is
provided to people with dementia.

MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: As the population ages there is more debate about how best to care for the
growing number of people suffering from dementia.

Last year, a British government advisor and medical ethicist Baroness Warnock attracted
condemnation for her views.

She said that elderly Alzheimer's sufferers should take their own lives, saying they were a burden
on their families and the public health system.

But Glenn Rees from Alzheimer's Australia refutes that, saying that people with dementia should be

GLENN REES: We support a positive approach to dementia, that's both in helping people get on with
their lives, helping them to be socially engaged, giving them the support they need. We also think
it's important that after centuries of stigma around dementia that people actually think positively
about dementia as a chronic disease, and one to which medical science will eventually find much
better answers.

PETER CAVE: Glenn Rees, the chief executive of Alzheimer's Australia ending that report from
Meredith Griffiths.