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What Is Dementia?

For over a decade now, I’ve taught a community health series I call Memory Boosters, a 4-part program that addresses brain fitness and neuroplasticity.  The course inevitably attracts older adults who are concerned about their memory.  Most frequently I hear similar complaints, including “I’m not good with names anymore” or “sometimes I walk into a room and forget what I’m supposed to do there.”  These concerns may be best framed in the context of Alzheimer’s disease – the most common cause of dementia.

A survey conducted by the Kaiser Foundation found that AD is the most feared disease amongst adults 55 and older.  The finding is not surprising noting the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s , which is now the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.  My students are often searching for reassurance that their memory challenges are not the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s or another dementia.  When I begin the discussion on the differences between normal age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, I’m often queried on the differences between Alzeimer’s and dementia.  The question usually goes something like this: “what the heck is dementia, anyway?”

What Is Dementia?

The nuanced answer is that dementia is a clinical syndrome – essentially a term to describe a cluster of symptoms and behaviors.  It’s not a disease.  I know this is confusing to most readers but let me attempt to clarify.  In order to be described as exhibiting dementia, the patient must demonstrate an impairment of memory and cognition (i.e., judgment, language, planning, comprehension, orientation, etc.) and those impairments combined interrupt the patient’s day-to-day functioning.

Functional impairment might include challenges with balancing a checkbook, navigating the internet, becoming lost in familiar surroundings, or remembering whether or not there’s a pot on the stove.  That’s the basic definition of dementia.

What is the Physiological Cause of Dementia?

More than likely, in 50%-75% of all dementia cases, Alzheimer’s disease is the cause.  But there are other causes as well, including those that may be reversible.  Yes, I wrote reversible.  Nearly 8% of identified dementias are caused by treatable medical disorders, including medication side effects, internal infections, dehydration, and other metabolic issues.  The probability that dementia symptoms are caused by an irreversible degenerative brain disease is high.  Irreversible causes of dementia include Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, dementia with Lewy Body, vascular dementia, and dementia caused by traumatic brain injury in addition to numerous others.

alziehmer's explained by Hart to Heart 2

How Does This Affect You?

Readers are invited to consider how this information might apply to their lives.  First, studies have found that individuals who complain frequently about their memories are at greater risk for developing dementia.

Because Alzheimer’s is such a feared disease, often older adults avoid discussing symptoms with their physicians.  I highly recommend promptly sharing your concerns in an effort to rule out treatable medical disorders.  You might find that a new medication is causing your forgetfulness.

If your healthcare team determines that you or your loved one has an irreversible cause of dementia it’s critical to know sooner rather than later in an effort to appropriately plan for the future.  Also, if you’ve been “diagnosed” with dementia, I encourage you to ask the simple question: what’s causing my dementia?

If your physician is uncertain, advocating for additional evaluation and assessment is recommended. Although treatments for all dementias are relatively uniform, the symptoms and degenerative progression are different for each.  Therefore, planning requires a more tailored approach.  Despite limited treatment options, there is a myriad of programs and services throughout the South Bay that can help to maintain the quality of life over the course of Alzheimer’s or another irreversible dementia.  The bottom line: dementia is an umbrella term to describe symptoms and behaviors.  But the term itself doesn’t provide the whole answer.  What’s causing my dementia?  Now that’s one heck of a better question.

Join us at Caregiving Essentials!

Dr. Hart facilitates Caregiving Essentials, a complimentary 3.5-hour workshop for family caregivers caring for a loved one with dementia and covers what you can expect as the disease progresses, how to manage resistance to care and challenging behaviors, and how to communicate effectively with family members who are cognitively impaired.  The next workshop is on Saturday, October 13th. RSVP is required. For more information on this program and how we can assist you in your senior care needs, please contact Hart-2-Heart at [email protected] or by phone at (480) 739-0337.