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|What does it mean when someone is said to have dementia? For some people, the word conjures up scary images of “crazy” behavior and loss of control. In fact, the word dementia describes a group of symptoms that includes short-term memory loss, confusion, the inability to problem-solve, the inability to complete multi-step activities such as preparing a meal or balancing a checkbook, and, sometimes, personality changes or unusual behavior.|
Saying that someone has dementia does not offer information about why that person has these symptoms. Compare it to someone who has a fever: the person is ill from the fever, but the high temperature does not explain the cause or why this person is ill.
Does any loss of memory signify dementia? Isn’t memory loss a normal part of aging? We often hear that because someone is old, memory problems are “just natural” and are to be expected. But we know thatserious memory loss is not a normal part of aging, and should not be ignored.
On the other hand, families might assume that a loved one’s noticeable loss of memory must be caused by Alzheimer’s disease. In many instances, Alzheimer’s is, in fact, the problem. But other conditions also can cause memory and cognitive problems severe enough to interfere with daily activities. These conditions can affect younger as well as older people. A clear diagnosis is needed.
Certain conditions can cause reversible dementias. These include medication interactions, depression, vitamin deficiencies or thyroid abnormalities. It is important that these conditions be identified early and treated appropriately so that symptoms can be improved.
The irreversible dementias are known as degenerative dementias, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common. There are a number of other degenerative dementias, however, that may look like Alzheimer’s, but have distinct or different features which need special attention and different treatment. Reversible and irreversible dementias are described in more detail below.
Importance of Obtaining a DiagnosisThe diagnosis of dementia requires a complete medical and neuropsychological evaluation. The process is first to determine if the person has a cognitive problem and how severe it is. The next step is to determine the cause in order to accurately recommend treatment and allow patients and caregivers to plan for the future.
Reversible DementiasDeteriorating intellectual capacity may be caused by a variety of diseases and disorders in older persons. An illness and/or a reaction to medication may cause a change in mental status. These are sometimes called “pseudodementias.” Detecting the underlying cause of changes through medical evaluation may lead to a determination that the cause is reversible or treatable. Examples of conditions that can cause reversible symptoms of dementia include:
Degenerative (Irreversible) DementiasIf reversible dementias are ruled out and it is determined that the person has a degenerative or irreversible dementia, it is important that families and medical personnel seek the cause of the problem. This will help ensure that the person affected receives proper medical care, and families can plan their caregiving and find appropriate support and resources.
The following are the most common degenerative dementias:
Good communication with the primary care provider affects the well-being of the person with dementia as well as the well-being of the caregiver. Communicating your concerns clearly and describing the changes you may have observed will help guide the provider to investigate further. In some cases, you may find yourself “educating” medical staff about your loved one’s symptoms.
An accurate diagnosis begins a process of education for caregivers and families so that needs can be met and resources located and put to use. Irreversible dementia requires a level of care that increases as the disease progresses. Through education and the use of available resources, families can learn new skills to handle shifting care needs.
Research into the cause and treatments for dementia continues at a rapid pace. We all look forward to new developments that someday may postpone, cure or even prevent these debilitating disorders.
Excerpted from FCA's fact sheet Is This Dementia & What Does It Mean? To view the entire text, go tohttp://caregiver.org/caregiver/jsp/publications.jsp?nodeid=345, or purchase a copy by sending $2.00 to Publication Orders, Family Caregiver Alliance, 180 Montgomery Street, Suite 1100, San Francisco, CA 94104.