Dementia is a term that refers to a group of diseases causing brain dysfunction. The four most common forms are (in order of prevalence): Alzheimer’s Disease, Vascular Dementia, Lewy Body Dementia, and Frontotemporal Dementia. While these four types of dementia overlap in the symptoms caused by the diseases, they have their own individual causes, unique manifestations affecting brain and body function, trajectory for advancement, and specialized care needs.
While it is undoubtedly “within the norm” to have some minor memory loss as we age (although this issue has been hotly debated), our brain function is so nuanced that it can make “kitchen table” assessment a challenge. According to the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov), major factors that determine how the brain ages are: genetics, blood flow, neurotransmitters, hormones, and lifestyle. The healthy brain begins to reduce in size (atrophy) by a small percentage after age 40. Extensive research has been done on the aging brain, its function, and responses to biology that may be responsible for brain illness. Visit the CDC website for excellent information.
Don’t panic… Everyone loses their keys and their phone. We wrongly attribute “loss of memory” as the main symptom of a dementia diagnosis when executive function is impacted as much, or more, than memory. We all “word search” from time to time. Mostly, we find what we are looking for.
Changes in speech patterns, inability to express oneself successfully, repetition of a thought or random words in conversation, decreased task completion, planning and organizing difficulty, and appearing highly disorganized are behaviors that should get your attention. Often, change comes on slowly, and it might be “so close to us that we don’t see it.” I regularly hear from families I work with that they had become so familiar with the cognitive changes in their loved one that it took a third party to call attention to what was clearly, a serious issue.
There are many medical conditions that can cause a decrease in cognitive function, which your medical team should thoroughly consider as part of an overall evaluation. Early diagnosis and intervention of any dementia is critically important. The medications used to delay the worsening of the condition work much more effectively if given early in the diagnosis.
I have seen these medications work successfully, both professionally and personally, but as the disease progresses, the medications are often discontinued due to marginal usefulness. Seeking specialized care early in the process not only gives access to diagnostic screenings, leveling of the symptoms, and potentially medications that can be therapeutic, but it also develops relationships and networks of care to prepare for what is to come.
None of us want this to happen to ourselves… or anyone we know or love. How would WE react if we were struggling with daily functioning? My guess is that, like our elder friends, we might try to hide any deficit we had and become creative in explaining away the fallout from our cognitive struggle.
If the car keeps getting dents or flat tires…investigate. If a full refrigerator of food, a wallet full of cash, or a tank full of gas is now empty…investigate. Pay close attention to what seems “off.” As you observe someone you suspect is struggling, see how they cope with new surroundings. Generally, this dynamic of new stimulus is more challenging to function in, and the demand creates detectable dysfunction.
I caution against random online research. Much of the information is from non-vetted sources and can mislead and misinform. However, The Alzheimer’s Association website (ALZ.org) is creatively informative in lay terms, making the data easier to digest. Educate yourself about the umbrella term “dementia” and the sub-categories of actual diagnoses. Understanding the function of the healthy brain will be profoundly helpful as you grapple with trying to learn about the dysfunction you are concerned about.
There are some similarities with changing behaviors that are relatively common across the population, but many factors contribute to how a diagnosis of dementia will play out. The temptation to not acknowledge the symptoms of dementia is understandable but terribly consequential.
This progressive disease continues to wreak havoc and needs proper diagnosis and care. Becoming informed, taking an honest inventory, and getting professional specialized medical care are the best tools in your workshop.