Iowa dementia sufferers at higher risk in winter

DES MOINES — People who suffer from dementia face a host of increased risks in winter months and in Iowa, dangers include everything from falls to getting lost, even in places that used to be familiar.

Some 66,000 Iowans suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Lauren Livingston, director of communications for the Iowa chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, said low winter temperatures, ice and darkness are just a few things making conditions especially dangerous for people with dementia, and there are others.

“One big one is ‘wandering;’ that can be a problem for people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Livingston explained. “Especially in severe weather, they don’t really understand when they go outside that it’s dangerous so they might not put on any coats or additional clothing to keep warm, and if they wander they may get lost and not be able to find their way home.”

Livingston noted keeping track of people with dementia in the winter is especially critical for Iowa’s 100,000 caregivers, 84% of whom say they want more help from family members.

Livingston emphasized it is important to offer caregivers help with everything from grocery runs and shoveling snow to offering breaks from round-the-clock monitoring. Memory problems are hallmark signs of people living with dementia, but Livingston noted there is another equally debilitating symptom called “sundowning,” which is made worse in Iowa’s shorter, darker days.

“It can cause them to become a little bit more agitated in the evening time when the sun is going down,” Livingston pointed out. “With the sunlight being less and less in the wintertime, it can cause a longer period of time for people with dementia to experience the sundowning and be more agitated.”

She added people with dementia are also more prone to falls, a risk made worse by Iowa’s snowy, icy weather. There are currently more than 6 million people nationwide living with Alzheimer’s disease. There is no cure and very few treatments available proven to slow its progress.