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Flora Stevens went missing 42 years ago. Last month she was finally found…living in a dementia care home. So could difficult life events have increased her risk of developing dementia? We examine the link between trauma and dementia

Flora Harris is a frail 78-year-old. She’s lived in a dementia care home since 2001 and, until recently, the people who looked after her knew very little about Flora’s life, except that she had no living relatives.

Then last month Flora’s true identity came to light. Flora Harris is actually Flora Stevens, a woman who disappeared on August 3 1975 shortly after being dropped off at a local hospital by her partner.

The discovery was only made when police decided to reinvestigate their missing person’s case in September this year using a recent and more sophisticated database. The search revealed a Flora Harris with the same social security number as Flora Stevens. Gradually, the truth began to emerge.

Detectives met up with Flora at her care home and their suspicions were confirmed when they showed her a faded photograph of herself as a young woman with brunette hair. Flora was able to recognise herself and whispered ‘me.’

The astonishing story of how Flora Stevens became Flora Harris – and managed to disappear without trace – raises many questions, most of which will never, sadly, be answered. Flora herself, who has lived in a state funded care facility in Boston, New York, for more than 15 years has revealed very little about her past, except to say she had a ‘bad’ marriage and her partner, now dead, was abusive.

If Flora’s disappearance was a deliberate attempt to escape a miserable or traumatic life, then the fact she now has dementia could sadly make sense. Emotional trauma has been shown to have long term effects on the developing brain. Economic hardship, abuse, divorce, even homelessness can all cause changes in the body and brain that only emerge later in life. Traumas including the death of a spouse, sibling or child have also been known to cause acute onset of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, although it’s likely the person was already prone to developing the disease in the first place. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has also been found to increase the likelihood of dementia. A study of US veterans diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder revealed they were nearly twice as likely to develop dementia as those without PTSD. The study found that people with PTSD have an impaired mechanism, called fear extinction, that causes them to continue having a stress response to a stimulus that is no longer a threat.

Maybe that’s why Flora remains tight-lipped about her past. When asked anything about her life by carers at her home, her response is always the same; ‘None of your business.’

Flora’s life before she went missing – or at least what’s known about it – does not sound easy. Suggestions that she ‘never wanted to be found’ could be valid. ‘You can tell something happened in her past that she didn’t want any part of,’ a former carer revealed.

Flora Stevens may have been found – detectives have been able to close the missing person case – but her past remains decidedly off limits. As one of the detectives investigating the case noted; ‘Most of the secrets are locked inside of Flora, and I don’t think we’ll ever get to them.’