A little forgetfulness can be brushed off as aging, but a repetitive pattern of memory loss or recurring signs of behavior change may lead to larger concerns about an elderly parent.
We’ve all forgotten a person’s name, where we put our keys, or whether we locked the front door after we’ve left home. While these things indicate lapses in memory, experiencing them from time to time doesn’t mean we have dementia. However, forgetting how to make change for a transaction, how to use the telephone, or how to find your way home probably points to a more serious underlying memory problem, such as mild cognitive impairment, the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, or another form of dementia.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is not a specific disease. It is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms that include changes in thinking, memory and other cognitive functions. These symptoms can be associated with a number of different types of dementia that each affect the brain in various ways. People with dementia have significantly impaired intellectual functioning that interferes with their ability to participate in day-to-day activities and maintain relationships. Seniors with dementia may also lose the ability to solve problems and control their emotions, and they may experience personality changes and behavioral problems, such as agitation, delusions, and hallucinations.
Signs of dementia or other serious memory problems may include:
- Asking the same questions or telling the same stories repeatedly
- Becoming lost in places a person knows well
- Not being able to follow directions
- An impaired concept of time
- Confusing or failing to recognize/remember people and places
- Not taking care of oneself or one’s home (eating poorly, not bathing or being unsafe)
- Significant changes in logic and judgement
- Difficulty communicating with others
- Changes in one’s attention span and ability to focus
Although it is increasingly common in elderly individuals, dementia is a serious medical condition and not a normal part of the aging process. The above symptoms may come on slowly and be very subtle at first. However, even one of these cognitive issues can have serious real-world consequences, like making it difficult for a senior to pay their bills on time, manage and attend appointments, keep a household in order, feed themselves, or socialize with family and friends.
Medical Conditions That Can Mimic Dementia
While memory loss is a common symptom of many kinds of dementia, changes in memory alone do not mean that a person has dementia. Doctors will diagnose an individual with dementia only if two or more brain functions—such as memory and language skills—are significantly impaired. Some of the diseases that can cause symptoms of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Huntington’s disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Doctors have identified other conditions that can cause dementia or dementia-like symptoms, including reactions to medications, normal pressure hydrocephalus, metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, urinary tract infections, brain tumors, anoxia or hypoxia (conditions in which the brain’s oxygen supply is either reduced or cut off entirely), and heart and lung problems.
What Do I Do if I Suspect My Parent Has Dementia?
Caregivers who are worried about their aging parents’ cognitive health should ensure they make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor will conduct or order a thorough physical and mental health evaluation to make a diagnosis. Your elderly parent will need to have a complete checkup, including bloodwork and urine tests to rule out other causes of cognitive decline. They will likely undergo a series of mental assessments as well to check their memory, problem solving skills, and math and language skills.
A complete medical exam for memory loss should review the person’s medical history, including their use of prescription and over-the-counter medications, diet, past medical problems and general health. A correct diagnosis depends on accurate details, so in addition to talking with the patient, the doctor might ask a family member, caregiver or close friend for additional information.
Diagnostic imaging may be necessary as well. A computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the brain may help rule out some causes of changes in cognition. These pictures can also reveal abnormal changes in areas of the brain that can aid in making a diagnosis.
It is important to note that there is no single, definitive diagnostic test for dementia. Physicians like neurologists, geriatricians and psychiatrists typically use a combination of any of the above tests and assessments to diagnose dementia.
If your elderly loved one is showing signs of dementia, it is important to schedule these tests and assessments immediately. Although a dementia diagnosis might not be made when symptoms initially present, the results of these tests can be used as a baseline for comparison against the results of future testing. Establishing a cognitive baseline is important for anyone who is concerned about their future cognitive health.
Treatment Options for Dementia
Prescription medications to specifically treat some symptoms of progressive dementias are now available. Although these drugs do not halt the disease or reverse existing brain damage, they can minimize the worsening of symptoms temporarily. This may improve an individual’s quality of life, ease the burden on caregivers and delay admission to a nursing home. However, each dementia patient is different, and these drugs are not effective for everyone.
Many people with dementia, particularly those in the early stages, benefit from adhering to a clear daily routine and practicing tasks designed to improve performance in specific aspects of cognitive functioning. For example, using memory aids, such as mnemonics, computerized recall devices or note taking can help seniors maintain their day-to-day lives independently for longer.
Planning for a Parent’s Future
Early diagnosis is crucial for allowing patients and their families to effectively prepare legally, financially and medically. While they are still able to participate, helping your parent spell out their wishes is an important step in planning for their future.
Sources: What is Alzheimer's Disease (https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers)