Dementia–just mention the word and we get nervous. Older adults fear it, and younger adults fear it for their parents and other loved ones. Unfortunately, this fear often deters people from talking about the signs of dementia, or causes denial that signs exist in ourselves or family members. We’ll talk of “senior moments” when we notice forgetfulness, or compensate for someone’s memory lapses so as to avoid a more serious discussion.
In order to start talking about dementia, we need to know what it is. Dementia is not a condition or illness, but an umbrella term for a number of symptoms that can occur due to a variety of possible diseases. The symptoms of dementia include impairments in thinking, communicating, and memory. The most common disease state that results in dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia can also be caused by a head injury, stroke, or brain tumor.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the early warning signs for dementia can be broken down into categories–cognitive and psychological. Cognitive warning signs include:
- Memory loss, which is usually noticed by a spouse or close friend
- Difficulty communicating or finding words
- Difficulty reasoning or problem-solving
- Difficulty handling complex tasks
- Difficulty with planning and organizing
- Difficulty with coordination and motor functions
- Confusion and disorientation
Psychological changes to look out for include:
- Personality changes
- Inappropriate behavior
It is also important to note that many of these changes can be due to other causes–including reaction to medications, infections, nutritional deficiencies, and exposure to toxic substances. Most of these causes of dementia can be treated–another reason to not be afraid to talk about dementia with your friends and relatives.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are medications available that can alleviate symptoms. The Mayo Clinic mentions Cholinesterase inhibitors. “These medications — including donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) and galantamine (Razadyne) — work by boosting levels of a chemical messenger involved in memory and judgment.” Another treatment is Memantine. “Memantine (Namenda) works by regulating the activity of glutamate, another chemical messenger involved in brain functions, such as learning and memory. In some cases, memantine is prescribed with a cholinesterase inhibitor.”
Physical therapy, meditation, occupational therapy and music therapy are some alternatives to medication that can alleviate symptoms like agitation, poor motor control, depression and anxiety. It can also be helpful to modify the environment of a patient with dementia to reduce the risks of falling and to make it easier to function and focus. Removing unnecessary or dangerous items and surrounding someone with very familiar things can be helpful, as can notes and reminders placed in a home or sent via mobile device.
According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, a new drug shows promise in slowing Alzheimer’s disease. “Early testing of a new drug showed promise in reducing declines in memory and thinking skills in people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, called aducanumab, also reduced levels in the brain of beta-amyloid, the toxic protein that builds up and forms telltale plaques in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s.”
Hope For the Future
In early 2016, Professor John Hardy, of the Institute of Neurology at University College London, said: “I think Alzheimer’s will be treatable. I hope that by 2025 we will be able to slow the disease.” Many pharmaceutical companies are looking for answers. Google-backed biotech firm Calico also is targeting diseases that affect the elderly.