Americans are terrified of dementia. As we live longer, more of us are developing the disease, or seeing loved ones, friends, celebrities, and movie characters struggle with it. Until recently, dementia was the country's second most intense medical fear, but recent polls show that fear rising—even, in at least one survey, taking the No. 1 spot.
In the last decade, researchers have begun raising concerns about what they call "dementia worry." A little bit of informed fretting about possible future dementia—which is incurable, after all—is a good thing: It might motivate you to set in place plans for old-age care, or to take steps with preventive value, like watching your weight and blood pressure, or maintaining an active social life. But healthy worry, experts say, can tip into an obsessive, anxious hyper-vigilance, causing you to misinterpret normal signs of aging (like memory lapses or cognitive decline) as signs that life as you know it is about to be irreparably shattered.
Anxious hyper-vigilance is no way to live. In the most severe cases, dementia worry could lead to misdiagnosis (and so to the prescription of unneeded medications), or to self-sabotage: The stress of ongoing dementia worry has the potential to produce measurable cognitive impairment.
A 2017 study in The European Journal of Aging suggested that dementia worry is exacerbated by exposure to negative stereotypes about old age. Sadly, negative stereotypes about old age—doddering grandpas and the like—are extremely common. Perhaps this is where we can make a difference. A dementia cure would be wonderful. In the meantime, we can work together on curbing our dementia worry.