Elder health Q&A: Dementia


Dr. Jenny Chiang Photo/submitted

By Dr. Jenny Chiang

Q:  What is dementia?

Dementia is a general term used to describe a brain disease that affects a person’s ability to think and process information. It is not a normal part of aging, and eventually can affect a person’s ability to do everyday tasks.

Q:  How is dementia different from Alzheimer’s disease?

There are different kinds of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and accounts for up to 60-80 percent of all cases. With Alzheimer’s disease, the brain cells, called neurons, die slowly over time when they are affected by two abnormal proteins in the brain. Scientists are still investigating why some people have these proteins. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 4.5 million people were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and it is predicted that number will triple by 2050 to 13.2 million.

Q:   What are the early signs of dementia?

Dementia can affect a person’s memory, reasoning and concentration, and even language.

Some examples of this are:

  • Word finding difficulties—“What’s that word? It’s on the tip of my tongue!”
  • Retaining new information—“Mom, I just told you yesterday…”
  • Difficulty with tasks like balancing a checkbook or paying bills—“Why did I pay the electric bill twice this month?”
  • Getting lost in a familiar place—“Officer, it’s crazy but I can’t remember which way to turn to get home.”

As dementia gets worse, it can:

  • Affect a person’s emotions causing them to get angry or aggressive when they were not before
  • Cause hallucinations, that is, seeing things or hearing things that are not there
  • Impair a person’s ability to do everyday tasks such as eating, bathing and dressing.

Q:   How can I find out if I have dementia?

Many people may not realize that they are having memory problems or recognize the signs of dementia. Sometimes it is a family member that tells a doctor that they are concerned.  Your doctor may do some blood tests in addition to memory and cognitive tests. Not everyone needs a brain scan; you should discuss with your doctor whether it is necessary.

Q:  What is the treatment for dementia?

Dementia is a progressive disease that does not get better. While there are not many effective treatments for most types of dementia, there are a few medications that can help with Alzheimer’s disease. The best approach is to try to keep your brain healthy by:

  • Maintaining good overall health e.g., by keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol as close to normal as possible.
  • Doing physical activity—some studies show that exercising and activities like ballroom dancing are associated with lower rates and a slower progression of dementia.
  • Keeping the brain busy by reading, doing puzzles, crosswords, Sudoku, etc.
  • Reducing alcohol intake especially after dinner alcohol because it can affect the quality of your sleep.
  • Seeking social interaction which decreases the risk of depression which can cause dementia symptoms to get worse.

Dr. Jenny Chiang, is a physician specializing in Geriatrics and Family Medicine for PACE at Element Care in Methuen, MA. For more information, please call 1-877-803-5564 or visit www.elementcare.org. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.