October 26, 2009
Early Detection, Treatment Can Help Prevent Dementia Onset
By Dr. Jeremy Hertza, Director of Behavioral Medicine
Walton Rehabilitation Health System
Augusta, GA—You forget where you put your keys. In conversation, someone asks, “So when did you get married?” and you draw a complete blank. You can’t come up with a word you are trying to think of. And you know something important is supposed to happen on Friday night, but can’t for the life of you recall what it is.
What is mildly annoying when you’re in your 30s can become a source of worry and anxiety when you’re in your 50s or 60s. As you grow older, you are at higher risk for dementias like Alzheimer’s or vascular-based impairments since age-related conditions like stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and the lifelong effects of choices like smoking can contribute to deficits in the brain.
The good news is that dementias like Alzheimer’s can be detected early in their disease course. This window allows for early treatment to help ensure as long and as high a quality of life as possible.
Those 65 and older can consider obtaining a baseline screening. Typically conducted by a neuropsychologist, a baseline screening examines and provides a report of brain function. A baseline screening is an extremely helpful tool since it provides a physician a view of “normal brain function” to compare against should that person begin to experience symptoms of dementia. Additionally, neuropsychological testing can be helpful in differentiating depression, something that commonly affects the elderly, from a true neurodegenerative condition.
The most common dementias include Alzheimer’s disease; vascular dementia, which is typically caused by stroke or other vascular problems; Lewy body dementia; frontotemporal dementia; and Parkinson’s disease and other similar diseases. Early symptoms of dementia can vary, and don’t just involve memory loss. They can also include:
· Clumsiness and falling
· Shaking hands
· Visual hallucinations
· Personality changes
· Problems finding the right words
However, remember that depression in the elderly can manifest itself with similar symptoms. Depression can affect how a person thinks as well as regular sleep patterns, resulting in a vicious cycle. Family members and the elderly need to recognize the potential effects of depression on brain function.
It’s true that knowledge is power, so it’s important to know that there are simple protective activities you can do from youth to old age to help your brain stay active and functioning at its best.
Lifestyle choices like regular exercise, a healthy diet and not smoking help not only your body but also your mind. All help increase circulation to your brain, and can help reduce your risk of developing dementias later in life.
Remember too that it’s necessary to exercise your brain to keep it active. “Use it or lose it”—regular mental activity and using your brain as much as possible keeps your brain active and alert. For example, don’t just watch TV, but also discuss plot points, what happened in past shows, and what you think will happen to your favorite character in the future. Maintain or develop a network of friends with whom you can converse and share experiences. If you have a favorite hobby, exercise your memory by recalling and discussing what you saw when looking at birds out of your window or the different types of flowers you recently planted. Even simple activities like reading, crossword puzzles or Sudoku help. These are just a few examples of many simple little things you can do to help keep your mind young and active.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a dementia like Alzheimer’s, certain early treatment options can be very helpful.
Neuropsychologists can examine functional domains of a patient’s brain to help determine what parts of the brain have been affected by the disease, and what other parts are working well. They can then work with the patient to teach them how to use the part that’s working well to compensate for the parts that aren’t. Neuropsychologists can also help patients and their families adjust to different stages in the disease course, making sure that everyone is doing everything they can to help their loved one.
In addition, particularly for Alzheimer’s, medications are available with relatively few side effects that can help patients retain memory function for a longer period of time. But it is important to note that once patients begin this course of medication, they need to remain on the medication. Should they stop, patients may experience a sharp decline that cannot be regained.
As people age, many worry about dementias. In fact, some studies show that more people worry about developing dementia than cancer or other diseases. And the worst part is that many people feel they are utterly powerless to stop it. But taking simple proactive steps like obtaining a baseline screening, having regular medical checkups and making specific lifestyle changes can not only help eliminate some of your worry but also give you back some control.
Media Contact: Danielle Wong Moores, PR Specialist, 706-434-0150
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