Māori have tools to take dementia head on

By Stefan Dimitrof

Researchers from the University of Auckland have found elderly Māori with dementia can reduce their symptoms in a te reo Māori setting such as a marae.

Dr Makarena Dudley, senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Auckland said the study followed 300 kaumātua and their wareware (dementia) wasn’t as pronounced as it would have been if they were in a Pākehā environment.

"In fact, while they were on a marae the symptoms they had been displaying of dementia disappeared for that time, so the kaumātua would become less confused, have more clarity of thought and it's just fascinating because many of their communications skills would improve. And some who had not been communicating at all started to speak and in te reo Māori as well."

Dudley said hearing the reo, and being in that familiar place created an environment where they felt safe and comfortable.

She said people who suffered from mate wareware quickly became disoriented and confused in environments that were unfamiliar to them. “That is why we tend not to move people that suffer mate wareware.”

"When the kaumātua go on the marae they are going into a familiar environment an environment that evokes safety and aroha for them. So they are able to perform to their best. The other thing is hearing and speaking the reo on the marae triggers the neural pathways that mediate Māori in the brain. For many of our kaumātua Māori was their first language but it's been suppressed." 

Dudley said other studies that focused on indigenous communities had found a later onset of dementia and more resistance to the progression of the disease if those people were bilingual.

Dementia is a nonspecific cognitive degradation of the brain function that impairs the ability to remember, think or make decisions.

Dudley said Māori could avoid the onset of dementia by being careful about the risk factors including hypertension, obesity, diabetes, depression, physical inactivity, less education, hearing impairment, low social contact, excessive alcohol consumption, traumatic brain injury and air pollution.

There are thought to be 55 million people worldwide suffering from some type of dementia, which has no known cure.