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Dementia: A Disease that Needs Treatment

separator Here are two things everybody should know about dementia:
  • It's not a "normal" part of aging.
  • People with dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, can reap tremendous benefits by getting treatment. The earlier the better.
In the past, many people, including doctors, regarded memory loss and confusion as a "normal" part of aging. There was little knowledge of causes and treatments. Older people who suffered from these conditions, and their families, were pretty much left on their own.

Today, the medical community recognizes there's a lot that can be done about dementia. Most importantly, early detection may help people to continue living independently for a longer period of time.

What exactly is dementia?

It's normal to experience mild memory changes as you get older. Mild memory changes aren't considered to be dementia. The term dementia refers to a collection of serious symptoms that result from actual changes in the brain. Symptoms can include
  • Asking the same questions over and over
  • Becoming lost in a familiar place
  • Becoming unable to follow directions
  • Getting easily confused about time, people and places
  • Neglecting personal hygiene, nutrition or safety
The two most common forms of dementia are Alzheimer's disease and what's called multi-infarct dementia, sometimes also called vascular dementia.

A change in important nerve cells in the brain is one the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease. The symptoms typically begin slowly and gradually become worse.

Multi-infarct dementia is often caused by a series of small strokes or other changes in the blood supply to the brain. Symptoms usually appear suddenly with this type of dementia. They often improve, and then suddenly become worse again if another series of strokes occurs. High blood pressure is a common cause of these strokes.

Alzheimer's disease and multi-infarct dementia are considered irreversible, meaning there is currently no known cure. But there are treatments that can improve the quality of life, so it's important for people with even these irreversible conditions to seek medical help right away.

Early evaluation is essential
If you notice the signs of dementia in yourself or in a family member, the worst thing to do is ignore it. Frequently, what seems to be early dementia may actually be caused by other, treatable conditions such as thyroid disease, a vitamin deficiency, a reaction to medication, sadness about the loss of friends, etc. That's why it's so important to go to a doctor as soon as symptoms appear.

If irreversible dementia is, in fact, the diagnosis, there's still treatment available that can improve the person's quality of life. The important thing is to be under the regular care of a physician. There's a medication that can delay some of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease if people begin taking it in the early to middle stages. Doctors should be monitoring people with multi-infarct dementia in order to prevent further strokes.

Often, people with dementia experience anxiety, agitation, depression or sleeping problems. Again, doctors can often prescribe medications that make them more comfortable. Counselors can help patients and family members manage the day-to-day difficulties of dementia.

The bottom line is that psychotherapy, counseling and medication can make a significant difference in people's lives. Getting treatment in the early stages can help people continue living independently for a longer period of time. And researchers are now working on vaccines that may, in the foreseeable future, offer a cure for Alzheimer's disease. It's just one more reason for people to treat their conditions early. You never know when the next, more effective treatment will be available. If you keep yourself in the best condition possible, your chances of benefiting from improved medications are better.

Getting treatment for dementia can have far-reaching, positive emotional, financial and physical implications. One of the biggest hurdles is changing people's mindset and ensuring they understand that dementia is a disease, not a normal part of aging.

National Institute on Aging; New York Times, 31 March 2002
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