As Baby Boomers continue to advance in age, dementia and Alzheimer's are in the spotlight more than ever — especially considering today's Americans are living longer lives than previous generations. Dementia, though, is not confined to seniors and it's certainly not the easiest topic to discuss. Here are a few key things to know to get the conversation started.
DEMENTIA IS NOT A SPECIFIC DISEASE
The Alzheimer's Association explains that dementia is not a specific disease but actually "a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life." There are several conditions — some reversible, others not — that can fall under the umbrella term.
ALZHEIMER'S IS A FORM OF DEMENTIA
Alzheimer's and dementia are often used interchangeably but Alzheimer's is actually a "type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior," according to the Alzheimer's Association. Symptoms tend to develop slowly and worsen over time, often until they are severe enough to impair daily-life functions. The National Institute on Aging further explains: "Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks." Most people with Alzheimer's first experience symptoms in their mid-60s.
ALZHEIMER'S IS THE MOST COMMON TYPE OF DEMENTIA
Alzheimer's, says the Alzheimer's Association, accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. The second-most common type is vascular dementia, which is when decreased bloodflow to the brain has damaged or killed brain cells. Vascular dementia makes up about 10% of dementia cases, and frequently occurs after a stroke.
LEARN TO RECOGNIZE THE SYMPTOMS OF DEMENTIA
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of dementia can vary depending on the cause. However, some common symptoms involve changes in cognitive function, such as memory loss, confusion, disorientation, or loss of motor function. Other signs include struggling with common tasks, including communicating, reasoning, planning, or organizing.
UNDERSTAND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL CHANGES DUE TO DEMENTIA
In addition to cognitive issues, there are psychological changes that may also signal dementia, adds the Mayo Clinic. Things to look out for include depression, anxiety, inappropriate behavior, paranoia, agitation, hallucinations, or changes in personality.
DISTINGUISH DEMENTIA FROM AGE-RELATED MEMORY LOSS
If you're unsure whether you're observing early symptoms of dementia or simply ordinary age-related memory loss, AARP offers a short online quiz: "Is It Normal Memory Loss or Early Dementia?" The quiz presents 10 different scenarios related to memory loss and asks the user to choose whether each is a possible sign of early dementia or simply an ordinary part of aging. Some of the answers may surprise you.
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR FOR DEMENTIA
Making the decision to see a doctor can be a difficult one, whether for yourself or a loved. The Mayo Clinic suggests consulting a medical professional any time you or a loved one is experiencing memory loss or other symptoms related to dementia. As some conditions are treatable, it's advised to seek medical help as soon as symptoms appear.
SOME SYMPTOMS CAN BE ADDRESSED WITH TREATMENT
Not everyone who experiences symptoms of dementia will have them for life. The Mayo Clinic says, "Some causes of dementia or dementia-like symptoms can be reversed with treatment." Among those causes are infections and immune disorders; metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities, such as thyroid problems or hypoglycemia; nutritional deficiencies; reactions to medications, and more.
DEMENTIA DOESN'T DISCRIMINATE ...
Even if you and your loved ones enjoy a healthy lifestyle, you could still be at risk for dementia. According to Alzheimer's Research UK, "Dementia doesn't discriminate — dementia is a condition that can affect anyone regardless of background, education, lifestyle, or status."
… BUT WOMEN ARE AT MUCH HIGHER RISK
According to the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, more women are impacted by Alzheimer's disease than men. Not only are two-thirds of all Alzheimer's patients women, women with Alzheimer's also tend to decline faster than men. Additionally, when it comes to family caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, 60% of them are women.
ALZHEIMER'S IS THE SIXTH LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH IN THE U.S
The Alzheimer's Association shares countless facts and figures, including that 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's. Every 65 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops the disease. Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. One in three seniors will die with either Alzheimer's or another form of dementia.
THERE ARE SEVERAL STAGES OF ALZHEIMER'S
According to the National Institute on Aging, initial Alzheimer's symptoms vary from one person to another. As the condition progresses, mild symptoms may include greater memory loss and wandering. With moderate Alzheimer's, "damage occurs in areas of the brain that control language, reasoning, sensory processing, and conscious thought." Memory loss may increase, and the patient may no longer recognize loved ones. With severe Alzheimer's, brain tissue shrinks significantly and the person can no longer communicate and is completely dependent on others for their care.
TREATING THE SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER'S
According to WebMD, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. However, medications, sensory therapy, and other treatments may help with its symptoms. Investigate your options for the best treatment plan for you or a loved one.
HOW A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE CAN HELP
Harvard Health Publishing of the Harvard Medical School reported last year that to avoid Alzheimer's disease, a healthy lifestyle could make a difference. "Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, is characterized by the accumulation of two types of protein in the brain: tangles (tau) and plaques (amyloid-beta). Eventually, Alzheimer's kills brain cells and takes people's lives." Key tips include regular exercise, following a Mediterranean diet, and getting plenty of sleep. Other lifestyle choices, including learning new things and staying social, may also have an impact.
VITAMINS AND SUPPLEMENTS DON'T OFFER A CURE
According to WebMD, good nutrition is always a fine idea, but "there are no vitamins or supplements proven to prevent, stop, or slow down Alzheimer's." While it may be tempting to try a variety of alternative treatments, it's important to remember there is no known cure for Alzheimer's and any promises to the contrary should be regarded with caution. Be sure to discuss any vitamins or supplements with a healthcare provider before taking anything.
NOT EVERY OLDER ADULT WILL DEVELOP ALZHEIMER'S
The majority of Alzheimer's patients are 65 or older, and increasing age remains the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer's. However, the Alzheimer's Association also shares that Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging. Those concerned about memory loss or diminished mental function in themselves or a loved one should consult a medical professional before assuming it's just a natural aspect of getting older.
IT CAN AFFECT THOSE WELL UNDER 65
Some 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer's disease, which is also called early-onset Alzheimer's, says the Alzheimer's Association. Many of these patients are in their 40s or 50s.
DIAGNOSING EARLY-ONSET ALZHEIMER'S CAN BE DIFFICULT
An accurate diagnosis for early-onset Alzheimer's can be a long process as most healthcare providers are rarely looking for the disease in younger people, and symptoms can vary from person to person, says the Alzheimer's Association. Sometimes, dementia symptoms in younger patients can be mistaken for stress or other conditions. Younger people experiencing memory issues are advised to see a doctor who focuses on Alzheimer's.
GENETICS SEEM TO PLAY A PART IN EARLY-ONSET ALZHEIMER'S
"Scientists have pinpointed several rare genes that directly cause Alzheimer's," according to the Alzheimer's Association, "People who inherit these rare genes tend to develop symptoms in their 30s, 40s, and 50s." Fortunately, these genes are not particularly common. They've been found in just a few hundred families worldwide and make up fewer than 1% of Alzheimer's cases.
THERE ARE MANY DISORDERS RELATED TO DEMENTIA
In addition to Alzheimer's, there are several other disorders linked to dementia, The Mayo Clinic reports. They include Huntington's disease, caused by genetic mutation; traumatic brain injury caused by repeated head trauma; Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare brain disorder, and Parkinson's disease, as "many people with Parkinson's disease eventually develop dementia symptoms."
DEMENTIA IS A COSTLY DISEASE WORLDWIDE
TheWorld Health Organizationsays the high cost of treating dementia will only continue to strain healthcare systems with the predicted increase in future cases. In 2017, WHO reported an estimated worldwide cost of $818 billion per year. The organization predicts that by 2050, the number of cases worldwide will have tripled.
CAREGIVERS FACE UNIQUE CHALLENGES
According to AARP, caregivers for people living with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia face the normal caregiving stresses, but also unique challenges: "Most distressing can be having to learn how to interact with a loved one whose cognitive decline results in erratic behavior and personality changes." Tips include recognizing early symptoms, attending or recording doctor's visits as the patients may not remember the details themselves, and trying to stay positive.
THERE IS SUPPORT FOR CAREGIVERS AND LOVED ONES
Those dealing with a loved one who has dementia should remember they are not alone. The Alzheimer's Association offers a 24/7 Helpline (800-272-3900) and its site is filled with information aboutsupport and support groups, with links to help you connect with local resources.
RESEARCH ON THE CAUSES AND POSSIBLE PREVENTION ARE ONGOING
Research on the causes and treatments of dementia, including Alzheimer's, is ongoing. Among those committed to the cause is the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Institute at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "The primary focus of WAI research is the prevention of Alzheimer's," the site explains. "Our internationally recognized research program, the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer's Prevention, known more familiarly as WRAP, holds tremendous promise for demystifying the biologic origins of Alzheimer's. The WRAP study is the first and crucial step toward prevention and early intervention. Started in 2001, WRAP is the largest study of its kind enrolling more than 1,500 adult children of parents with Alzheimer's representing diverse communities and populations."