Dementia at just 49: Wellington woman forgets her own name

A Memory Walk to raise awareness about dementia attracted more than 100 people at Wellington's Zealandia on Saturday.

Rebecca Bullen and her mum, Lauren, live very much in the moment. Lauren's struggle is apparent just from asking her name.

"Lauren Carmel Marshall... no, sorry, that's the dementia," she told Newshub. That's her maiden name.

When asked again, Lauren paused before answering. "Lauren. Is that okay?"

Lauren Bullen was diagnosed with dementia four years ago, at the age of just 49. It's estimated 10 percent of sufferers are in their 40s or 50s.

Lauren's 23-year-old daughter is her primary caregiver.

"I have a day job that pays the bills, but 24/7 outside of that it's Mum and I, just the two of us," Rebecca said.

She's constantly wondering if tomorrow will be the day her Mum's going to lose her balance, or not know where she is if she gets up in the night.

"Once you're diagnosed, you can no longer work and you can't drive. You can't do all the things you used to, you lose your sense of self," Rebecca said.

"I try not to do anything wrong, and with my daughter, she's beautiful," Lauren laughed.

Author Kate De Goldi is a Champion of Dementia. Two of her grandparents had dementia, as did her mother and father.

"It's agonising, seeing two extremely alert, successful, bright people diminishing in that way, receding from us," she said.

She worries it will affect her, too.

"I've done all sorts of things, like clean my teeth with my left hand, use my left hand more often, try new crossword activities. So I'm aware of it, but what will be, will be."

It's estimated there are 60,000 dementia sufferers in New Zealand, but that's expected to jump to 170,000 by 2050, as the population ages.

Alzheimer's New Zealand says there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of developing dementia:

  • get treatment for high blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • try not to smoke 
  • minimise alcohol
  • eat a well-balanced diet
  • get moderate exercise
  • keep learning throughout your life
  • have a full social life.

So when does forgetfulness become something more serious?

"We all forget our keys, but if you forget that you have a car, that would be a much more significant change," said Alzheimer's New Zealand CEO Catherine Hall.

Rebecca Bullen says everything is 10 times harder now, but she'd do it in a heartbeat for her Mum.