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While festive family gatherings are still fresh in the memory, the NHS is asking people if they noticed any unusual or strange behaviour by older friends or family members over Christmas and New Year?

Family and friends can play a key role in spotting early signs of dementia in older people and, as with most conditions, the earlier it is diagnosed, the more effective treatment can be.

The Alzheimer’s Society (the UK’s leading dementia support and research charity) says its free dementia helpline (0300 222 11 22) always receives a marked increase in calls during January. Many of the callers are people who are worried about older friends and relatives after spending time with them over Christmas and New Year and noticing small changes in their behaviour.

Now Professor Alistair Burns, NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Dementia and Older Peoples’ Mental Health, has written a helpful checklist of symptoms of dementia to look out for, particularly when people get together for family gatherings or celebrations. They include:

  • Confusion in a new environment – someone may become disorientated or confused when in a new place. A family holiday in a hotel can be a time when a person can become confused and may include trying to get into the wrong bedroom.
  • Similarly, visiting a relative’s house where the layout is unusual could put a person’s memory and orientation to the test.
  • Forgetting the names of loved ones to the extent that it causes embarrassment.
  • Forgetting someone’s present – it might not be a very close relative, but sometimes a niece or a nephew’s present can be forgotten as it slips from memory.
  • Complex tasks such as cooking dinner for a large number of people. The sign could be something as obvious as forgetting to switch the oven on, forgetting to put the veggies on or cooking things in the wrong order.

If you noticed any of these traits or something similar in an older friend or relative over Christmas, it could be an opportune time to speak to them or seek advice. In England it is estimated that around 676,000 people have dementia and one-in-three of us will care for someone with the disease at some point in our lives. While it mainly affects people over 65, dementia can develop earlier.

The condition, which is estimated to cost the health service £23 billion a year, is a key priority for NHS England. It has set the target of making this the best country in the world for dementia care and support for individuals with dementia, their carers and families, and also the best place in the world to undertake research into dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases by 2020.

There are a range of NHS services to help people with dementia and also support their family and carers. As well as treatment from GPs and hospitals, it can include other types of healthcare such as community mental health nurses, physiotherapy, hearing care, optometry, foot care, speech and language therapy, and mobility specialists.

Professor Burns said: “Dementia is something that happens slowly so it may slip by unnoticed in people we see regularly. That’s why the Christmas visit to wider family and friends is an opportunity to spot the early warning signs. The NHS is here to help, but diagnosis is the first big step and this is where people who know someone best can really make a difference in spotting the signs of dementia.

Erika Aldridge, Head of Advice at Alzheimer’s Society, added: “Calls to the Alzheimer’s Society Helpline increase in January with people seeking advice and support after the festive season, many of whom were worried about what could be signs of dementia.

“It can be difficult to know how to discuss concerns with a loved one, and there is no right or wrong way to approach this. If you do notice any changes in someone close to you that gives you cause for concern, such as repeated forgetfulness, confusion or behaviour that is out of character, our Helpline is here to offer you expert advice.”

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