Dementia

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The US population is aging. The number of memory & neurological disorders caused by aging is mirroring this population trend. Cognitive disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are sensitive topics for many. These debilitating conditions don’t just affect the diagnosed, but also those around them who become caregivers. Stigma and cultural taboos often prevent family members and patients from openly discussing their health issues- especially neurological & memory patients. According to the CDC, over 34 million Americans provide uncompensated care for a friend or family member. This number is staggering—as are the responsibilities of a caregiver.  This blog post is dedicated to those caregivers, who selflessly donate time, money and energy to helping those in need.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with dementia it’s defined as the loss of mental functions—i.e. thinking, memory, reasoning, etc.—severe enough to interfere with a person’s daily functioning.  Dementia itself is not a static diagnosis; it is a group of symptoms that are caused by various diseases and conditions. Symptoms vary case by case, and can often take different forms. Changes in personality, mood, and behavior are some common warning signs.  As time wears on, dementia typically progresses and symptoms worsen.

 The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease which accounts for 60% to 80% of the cases.  About 5% to 8% of all people over the age of 65 have some form of dementia and this number doubles for every five years above that age.  It is estimated that as many as half of people in their 80s suffer from dementia.

The damage these memory conditions cause can wreck havoc to brain cells, interfering with cellular communication.  The brain contains many distinct regions; each region is responsible for a different function.  When cells in a particular region of the brain are damaged they can no longer carry out normal functions. Dementia can affect any region, and researchers often cite this diverse neurological segmentation for such a wide array of symptoms.

Most cases of dementia are permanent and in time grow more severe.  However, there are a few symptoms that can improve when treated.  Below is a list temporary causes of dementia:

  • Depression
  • Medication side effects
  • Excess use of alcohol
  • Thyroid problems
  • Vitamin deficiencies

There is no definitive test that can diagnose dementia.   In order to diagnosis types of dementia, physicians use a patient’s medical history, physical examination, lab tests, and the cognitive changes associated with each form of the disease. Alzheimer’s and some other memory disorders cannot be diagnosed until an autopsy is conducted after death. General physicians can make a diagnosis of dementia, but may not be able to diagnosis the specific type dementia. Overlapping symptoms can be complex, and a visit to a neurologist is recommended.

 Treatment for dementia depends on causation. In cases of progressive dementia, there is no cure.  Drug treatments and alternative therapies may be used in some cases to alleviate symptoms.

Dementia does not only affect the patient, but also their friends and family.  As the disease progresses, each day may differ in severity. Some days patients will be lucid—as if they were cured—while other days will bring increasing confusion and disorientation. Dementia truly causes emotional distress to all involved. 

The debilitating effects of dementia transcend all culture, boarders and social class. Personally, I have seen the effects of dementia first hand.  A family friend in his middle to late 70s is beginning to develop dementia.  He sadly has had more bad days than good days. His particular symptoms include the loss of social filter and often the things he says are truly outrageous.  Although we understand that he is ill, it is difficult to just forgive and forget the pain some of those words have caused.  As with most cases, dealing with his disease it is a day by day process and takes a lot of strength.  If you are in a similar situation and looking for help, there are many support groups available. To find or locate one in your area, visit http://www.alzmass.org/Support_Groups/supportgrouplist.html#top .

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