Dairy producers are the first to acknowledge that proper functioning farm equipment is critical if they are to run a dairy farm successfully.  Robots, tractors, harvest equipment and milking parlors are kept in top condition to produce the healthy milk that sustains our business. The same is true of our own equipment – also known as mind and body.  Like our dairy equipment, as we age, some parts, for us our mind and body, start to wear out. It is unfortunate when we accept this as something we can do nothing about. 

One particular ailment – namely Alzheimer’s – is not only overlooked it is often underdiagnosed and dangerously ignored. 

There are many of us in agriculture, who have watched memory loss or dementia gradually take its toll on a family member, farm worker, supplier or consultant. The loss is personally devastating, but we put our heads down and continue on.

Show Me the Numbers

In dairying, we live by numbers: the number of cattle, the production numbers… You name it numbers are important.  When it comes to health issues, numbers have a lot to say about where we find ourselves. In 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease facts and figures reported, “An estimated 5.3 million Americans have AD; 5.1 million are age 65+ years, and approximately 200,000 are age <65 years and have younger-onset AD. By mid-century, the number of people living with AD in the United States is projected to grow by nearly 10 million, fueled in large part by the aging Baby Boom generation.”

Two major fears. Fear of stopping dairying.  Fear of asking for help.

Because of lifelong dairy connections, farmers could end up in a double bind if they begin to have problems relating to mental health. Traditionally farmers continue working long after usual retirement age. On the one hand, problems like dementia can become particularly acute for farms in terms of operating and managing both the business and physical sides of the operation. As well, fear of negatively affecting the dairy business, farmers are even more reluctant to ask for help.

What is Dementia? 

Dementia is characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem-solving abilities, and other cognitive skills that affect a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease is the number one cause of dementia, and an estimated 5.4 million Americans had Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

The Farm and Rural Connection

As we become more knowledgeable about things that impact the environment we live in, studies are beginning to suggest possible links that are associated with agriculture.  The following statistics were reported in Iowa Farmer Today in August of 2013. There might be a connection to farming and rural livelihoods. Although the causes of Alzheimer’s have not been fully determined, there is scientific evidence growing up in a rural area may double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

A meta-analysis of how growing up in rural and urban areas affects the development of Alzheimer’s, published by University of Edinburgh and London researchers in 2012, indicated nonurban people had twice the chance of incurring Alzheimer’s later in life. The researchers theorized access to healthcare, socioeconomic well-being and exposure to unknown substances could be contributing factors.

The impact of Insecticide Exposure

Here are some updates on research in the area of insecticide exposure.

“A review of 2.6 million death certificates by Dr. Robert Park of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health indicated a greater risk for degenerative brain diseases, especially Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, among farmers and persons in several other occupations where chemical exposures were likely to occur.” (for more see ‘Five Occupations Linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s).

“Other studies of farmers, in particular, have suggested exposures to commonly used agricultural insecticides in the organophosphate and chlorinated pesticide families and certain fumigants are well known to contribute to the onset of Parkinson’s and may be precipitants to Alzheimer’s.

Not enough research has been conducted to adequately sort out the relationships, but a body of confirmatory research findings is developing.”

Research is Growing a Worldwide Data Base

There are several studies underway which are adding valuable data regarding dementia. One such study is underway at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom. They found that memory loss can be especially destructive to farmers and their families.

Another study is underway in Canada. Professor Andria Jones-Bitton, Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph, analyzed more than 1,100 responses nationwide to an online stress and resilience survey, conducted on agriculture producers from September 2015 to January 2016. Early findings report that stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, and burnout are all higher among farmers than among other groups.

Dementia Can Be Dangerous on the Dairy Farm

A serious concern is especially relevant relating to farmers who contract Alzheimer’s or Dementia and present a danger to themselves and others as they attempt to continue working with animals and large equipment. Adding to the problems, are the additional stresses of trying to care for someone with dementia.

Farmers in Jeopardy Because of Isolation (of mental health issues)

Farmers may be especially susceptible to escalating mental health issues because they tend to be reluctant to ask for help. Here are some reasons that farmers acknowledge have delayed proactive progress when farmers face Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

  • Stigma
    It is difficult to open up about their symptoms or need for therapy.
  • Severity
    Waiting too long to seek help, means that the issues are deeply entrenched.
  • Getting Started
    Many are unsure of how or where to start.
  • Time and Energy
    It takes time and energy to deal with treatment options. Both are hard to find after the full days put in on farm operations.
  • Money
    Therapy can be costly, and options and accessibility may not be widely known in rural communities.

There can be other reasons to avoid treatment, and any or several of them can lead to isolation and hiding problems from the outside world.

Medical Disclosure Practices Could be Adding to the Problem

There are times when the health care system and patients are at odds with each other – perhaps unintentionally. Research reports that “Among people with a diagnosis of AD or another dementia, fewer than half report having been told of the diagnosis by their health care provider. Though the benefits of a prompt, clear and accurate disclosure of an AD diagnosis are recognized by the medical profession, improvements to the disclosure process are needed. These improvements may require stronger support systems for healthcare providers and their patients.”

Need to Ask for Help

The Bullvine encourages anyone dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts to find someone to talk to and to ask for help.  It’s a fact that farmer suicide rates are among the highest of any occupation. (Read more: Thinking about Ending It All).  The most important part of dealing with depression is talk.  Talk removes of smashes apart stigma and brings new ideas, proper advice and sources of help.  Talking about depression in farming at agricultural shows and events also helps.  We know depression affects farmers.  We need to bring the issue into the public as a workplace health concern that is talked about at these venues.  The old saying, “The more you know…” goes a long way in dealing with depression.

We need to ask for help and talk.

Good News

in researching this article for The Bullvine, I fell into a common defensive mode and began looking for some glimmer of light in this bleak forecast.  This led to a reference in Scientific American Mind (June 2016) which reported regarding an article entitled, “Banking Against Alzheimer’s.” Among other things, one part takes a longer view of the disease. “Choices we make throughout life, from learning a second language or studying music in childhood to finding purpose and remaining physically, intellectually and socially active in retirement, can build a cognitive reserve and dramatically reduce the risk of developing dementia.” This is not a cure, but it is something to actively share and discuss with the next generation.

Taking Action

The real key is to take action when and where it is needed in the present. A cure for AD and Dementia will take considerable time, money and research.  In the meantime, understanding and reaching out for proactive resources for dealing with mental health issues is something we can do right now.

One such plan is being undertaken by previously mentioned Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton, a Professor in the Department of Population Medicine. “We are building a team of producers, industry representatives, veterinarians and mental health professionals to create, deliver and evaluate a mental health literacy training program for farms.” She reports that this program is intended to train people to recognize and respond to mental distress and reduce the stigma around mental health issues in Ontario’s agricultural sector. “We need to do something,” she says.  “Farmers want help, and we’re going to find ways for them to receive it.”

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Our mental health is one of our most precious commodities. It should never be taken for granted. We all recognize farmers as being the first ones we can turn to when we need help.  Now we need also to recognize that keeping our farmers healthy is important for everyone. 

 

 

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