A Dementia Diagnosis: Bane or Blessing?

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When an aging loved one begins behaving strangely and experiencing lapses in memory, it raises countless questions and concerns. Is it just old age, or could it be dementia? Should I make an appointment with the doctor, and if so, what kind of doctor? If this can’t be cured, then what’s the point in even seeking a diagnosis?

It is true that dementia can be difficult to diagnosis and that many forms, like Alzheimer’s disease (AD), cannot be cured. However, knowing what you’re dealing with has its advantages. A diagnosis allows the entire care team to learn about the condition, devise an appropriate course of treatment, and plan accordingly for the future.

A Diagnosis Can Have Surprising Medical Effects

The most obvious benefit of undergoing testing for dementia is that it can help determine whether your loved one’s cognitive impairment and mood changes are being caused by something other than Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. According to Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, Adjunct Clinical Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), depression, urinary tract infections (UTIs), thyroid problems, diabetes, certain vitamin deficiencies, and medication side effects and interactions, can all cause symptoms that are similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

“These conditions are reversible,” Dr. Landsverk emphasizes. “Depending on the diagnosis, a course of antibiotics, a close look at a loved one’s medications or a healthier diet could make all the difference in cognitive functioning.”

While many families blame changes in a loved one’s physical and mental function on old age, doing so can actually prevent seniors from receiving the medical treatment they need. In some instances, delaying diagnosis could even cause irreversible damage to the mind and body. “It is best to have a full physical exam and neuropsychological testing done as soon as there are any signs of cognitive decline,” urges Dr. Landsverk.

Experts admit that definitively diagnosing Alzheimer’s can be tricky. If it is decided that your loved one should get tested, seek out the services of a doctor who specializes in dementia. A neurologist, a geriatrician, or a geriatric psychiatrist, can begin the process of developing an accurate picture of a senior’s cognitive ability.

Read: Can Any Test Tell if You Have Alzheimer’s or Will Get It?

A Clear Sense of the Future

Although receiving the diagnosis of dementia is upsetting, having this information very early on in the progression of the disease can help family members communicate and plan for the future in a more effective way. A definitive diagnosis opens up the opportunity for honest discussions about a senior’s wishes for the future and allows them to think carefully about what they want in terms of long-term and end-of-life care. It also gives them the power to appoint a person whom they trust to manage their health care and/or finances when they are no longer competent. “If a patient’s condition deteriorates far enough before legal matters are addressed, then their family members may have to go through the long and expensive legal process of obtaining guardianship,” warns Dr. Landsverk.

The knowledge that a loved one is or may soon be cognitively impaired can also prompt family members to step in early on to safeguard their physical and financial wellbeing. “One of the first mental impairments to occur with dementia is the loss of ability to assess risk,” notes Dr. Lansdverk. “The patient cannot properly assess when someone will help them or hurt them, or if a business deal is actually beneficial.” Early diagnosis helps family members ensure a loved one does not fall victim to scams, elder abuse, or self-neglect. It prevents them from sabotaging their own finances through excessive spending or unpaid bills as well.

Understanding the Disease

Early diagnosis gives family members the ability to research and learn about a loved one’s condition without a sense of urgency. Insight into a loved one’s condition can help guide expectations and plans for the future, and it can also provide an explanation for why a senior may be acting in a strange or hurtful way. Understanding that their actions are caused by a disease may help to alleviate some of the pain and frustration their words and actions cause. It may help a caregiver to more easily “let go” of emotional reactions and guide interactions with their loved one in a healthier and more productive direction.

Dementia expert, Teepa Snow, feels that a diagnosis can even be beneficial for the patient. Many elders mistakenly think they are “going crazy” when they begin failing to recall memories or can’t figure out simple tasks that used to be second nature. “The knowledge that something is wrong can be helpful because it tells the senior that they’re doing the best they can with what they have left,” Snow says. “Understanding that these difficulties stem from something real and organic can offer a form of comfort and stress reduction.”

Seeking a Diagnosis

Many of those living with dementia remain undiagnosed, which leaves them incredibly vulnerable. Your loved one may be reluctant or even refuse to go to the doctor, but they should be encouraged to seek a comprehensive evaluation. Snow puts it bluntly: “Older adults fear dementia the most. The only way to conquer that fear is to get in there and look at the possibilities. Pretending that it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.”

If you are noticing unusual behavioral or cognitive changes in your loved one, it is important to encourage them to see their primary care physician or a reputable neurologist sooner rather than later. While it can be a difficult diagnosis to receive, this knowledge can empower you, your loved one and your family members to make informed decisions moving forward.

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