A Primer on Dementia and Alzheimer’s

A Primer On Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Many people equate dementia with Alzheimer’s disease but there are a number of causes of dementia.  It is important to have an understanding of what dementia is and what can be done about it.

Dementia is a loss of mental function – Everyone has isolated problems with memory but that does not mean they have dementia.  People with dementia lose the ability to think, remember, and reason to the point where it interferes with their everyday functioning.

Some dementias are treatable – Everyone who shows signs of dementia should be evaluated by a physician.  Certain medical conditions produce dementia symptoms, and when those conditions are treated, the symptoms disappear. Even if a person has an irreversible dementia, some medications may slow the progression of the disease.

Causes of reversible dementia – The following are some of the conditions that can produce dementia symptoms: nutritional deficiencies, some infections, hormonal imbalances, alcohol or drug toxicity, lack of oxygen, depression, and certain types of hydrocephalus.  With proper treatment, these symptoms may disappear.

Causes of non-reversible dementia – The most frequent cause of non-reversible dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, but there are other causes.  Some of the common ones are vascular dementia (often due to strokes), Parkinson’s disease, Lewy-Body Disease, and Pick’s Disease.  Each of these have distinct features, so an accurate diagnosis is important to be sure appropriate treatment is begun.  Some medications may slow down the progression of the disease even if they do not reverse it.

Ten Warning Signs – The Alzheimer’s Association has developed the following warning signs for dementia:
1. Memory changes that disrupt daily life
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, work, leisure
4. Confusion with time and place
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
6. New problems with words in speaking and writing
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
8. Decreased or poor judgment
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
10. Changes in mood or personality

What to do

  • The first thing to do when a person shows signs of dementia is to help that person obtain a thorough medical evaluation.  This will help determine if the individual has dementia, whether it is reversible, and what treatment options the person has.
  • The second thing to do is to begin planning ahead.  If a person has non-reversible dementia, it is important to help that one complete documents such as a Power of Attorney, Advance Directives, and a Will before he/she loses the capacity to understand and sign these documents.  An Elder Law Attorney can not only help with these documents but can also help the person structure his/her financial situation to maximize his/her ability to pay for long term care at a later time.
  • The third thing to do is for the caregiver of the person with dementia to develop a support system.  While an individual may be able to provide all the needed care in the early stages of dementia, as the disease progresses, caregivers often find their own health declining from trying to provide care without adequate support.  This may mean joining a support group, obtaining help at home, using an adult day program, using a facility for respite care, or even placing your loved one in a secure setting.  If you are a client of Keystone Elder Law, the Elder Care Coordinator is available to assist you in learning about and evaluating your support options.

The future – Until there are ways to prevent or cure non-reversible dementias, the problems for affected individuals, their caregivers, and society as a whole are only going to get worse.  According to a report from the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2010, there were 5.3 million people in the US who have Alzheimer’s disease, and it was the seventh leading cause of death.  With successful treatments now available for some chronic medical conditions, Baby Boomers are expected to live longer than their parents, and, with the incidence of Alzheimer’s and other dementias increasing with age, it is expected that the number of people with dementia will rise.  With increasing numbers affected and limited resources, the earlier that dementia is recognized and a plan of care is developed, the easier it will be for that individual and his/her caregivers.