Health Matters: Dementia: Do I Have It? Will I Get It?

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Anyone who has spent time with a friend or family member with late-stage dementia knows it is a debilitating disease that steals away a loved one’s memory, personality, and ability to care for themselves. Although there are medical treatments that can temporarily slow the disease’s progression, modern medicine has yet to develop a cure.

What is Dementia?

Dementia refers to permanent progressive memory loss often related to age. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org), an estimated 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s dementia, 96 percent of whom are age 65 or older. Interestingly, almost two-thirds of them are women. Most people diagnosed with the disease after the age of 65 survive an average of 4 to 8 years, but some live much longer. 

Do I Have Dementia?

When people’s memory begins to falter, some worry they may be experiencing the onset of dementia. As a symptom, memory loss can be tied to many ailments, including underactive thyroid, vitamin B-12 deficiencies, having had a stroke, and other brain trauma, infection, or illness. Emotional disorders such as depression or intense stress can also cause people to have symptoms that mimic dementia, symptoms like forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, and confusion. So, the good news is that memory loss does not necessarily indicate dementia.

As with many things in life, it is often easier to see others more objectively than we see ourselves. The same is true for the early warning signs of dementia. For example, we notice when our aging parents begin repeating the same questions or telling us the same stories, or when they are easily confused. There is a simple test that may help indicate whether a person is struggling with dementia called the Clock-Drawing Test. It screens for cognitive impairment. You can find more information online or from a medical provider. 

Will I Get It?

Although early-onset Alzheimer’s (before age 65) may be hereditary, in general, dementia is not, so having a family member with dementia is not necessarily a risk factor. However, if a person’s memory loss cannot be attributed to another cause and it gets progressively worse, consider discussing the possibility of dementia with a medical provider. Unfortunately, doing crossword puzzles or playing online games that promise to scientifically improve memory do not prevent dementia.

What Can Family Members Do?

Being a caregiver for someone with dementia is physically and emotionally exhausting. There’s an excellent book titled The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for People Who Have Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementias, and Memory Loss by Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins that outlines the physical aspects of the disease, explains some of the more frustrating behaviors, and provides strategies on how to make life more tolerable when facing a loved one’s decline.

From a legal standpoint, it is wise for family members to help the person with mild dementia complete an advance directive and establish a durable power of attorney. This allows the person with dementia to participate in decisions about their finances and end-of-life care while they are still mentally competent.

From an emotional standpoint, it’s important to remember that people with moderate or severe dementia aren’t likely to respond well to a logical argument. They are sometimes combative and paranoid because they feel afraid and confused. They don’t know whom they can trust, and their version of reality doesn’t match with those around them. A better strategy to change behavior is distraction and redirection.

The chief concern in caring for a person with dementia is maintaining their safety and personal hygiene. If the caregiver cannot do this, it is time to consider additional support at home or placement in a skilled nursing facility or assisted living facility with a memory care unit. 

Dementia is a heart-breaking illness. If you are a caregiver, consider joining a support group or getting some respite care. In Ukiah, the Redwood Caregiver Resource Center and the Ukiah Senior Center offer some excellent support.

Dr. Jerry Douglas is the Chief Medical Officer at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people residing in Lake and Mendocino Counties. 
 

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