Living Well: The differences between age-related memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s |

Living Well: The differences between age-related memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s

Lauren Glendenning/Brought to you by Memorial Regional Health
The most common and well-known is Alzheimer’s disease, but just because someone is old and has memory problems does not always point to Alzheimer’s disease.
MRH resources for dementia For patients suffering from any form of dementia, MRH offers specialty care in geriatric medicine and neurology. Occupational Therapy at MRH can also help patients with general aging issues including helping elderly individuals stay in their homes or cope with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and memory loss. Talk to your primary care physician for a referral to a specialist. Call MRH at 970-826-2400. Signs of Alzheimer's vs. typical age-related changes Memory loss that disrupts daily life One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in the early stage, is forgetting recently learned information. Others include forgetting important dates or events, asking for the same information over and over, and increasingly needing to rely on memory aids (e.g., reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to handle on their own. Typical age-related change: Sometimes forgetting names or appointments, but remembering them later. Challenges in planning or solving problems Some people may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. They may have trouble following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly bills. They may have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before. Typical age-related change: Making occasional errors when balancing a checkbook. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure People with Alzheimer's often find it hard to complete daily tasks. Sometimes, people may have trouble driving to a familiar location, managing a budget at work or remembering the rules of a favorite game. Typical age-related change: Occasionally needing help to use the settings on a microwave or to record a television show. Confusion with time or place People with Alzheimer's can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time. They may have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately. Sometimes they may forget where they are or how they got there. Typical age-related change: Getting confused about the day of the week but figuring it out later. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships For some people, having vision problems is a sign of Alzheimer's. They may have difficulty reading, judging distance and determining color or contrast, which may cause problems with driving. Typical age-related change: Vision changes related to cataracts. New problems with words in speaking or writing People with Alzheimer's may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue or they may repeat themselves. They may struggle with vocabulary, have problems finding the right word or call things by the wrong name (e.g., calling a "watch" a "hand-clock"). Typical age-related change: Sometimes having trouble finding the right word. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps A person with Alzheimer's disease may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. Sometimes, they may accuse others of stealing. This may occur more frequently over time. Typical age-related change: Misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them. Decreased or poor judgment People with Alzheimer's may experience changes in judgment or decision-making. For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money, giving large amounts to telemarketers. They may pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean. Typical age-related change: Making a bad decision once in a while. Withdrawal from work or social activities A person with Alzheimer's may start to remove themselves from hobbies, social activities, work projects or sports. They may have trouble keeping up with a favorite sports team or remembering how to complete a favorite hobby. They also may avoid being social because of the changes they have experienced. Typical age-related change: Sometimes feeling weary of work, family and social obligations. Changes in mood and personality The mood and personalities of people with Alzheimer's can change. They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious. They may be easily upset at home, at work, with friends or in places where they are out of their comfort zone. Typical age-related change: Developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted. Source: The Alzheimer’s Association

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but there are other age-related cognitive changes that people often experience that do not always point to dementia.

“The most common and well-known is Alzheimer’s disease, but just because someone is old and they have memory problems, that does not always just equal Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Catherine Cantway, the geriatric medicine physician at Memorial Regional Health. “Performing a thorough evaluation of a patient with cognitive concerns is critical in order to make a proper diagnosis, to guide management, and to educate families on what to expect. A significant part of my geriatric training was in cognitive health and how to properly diagnose and manage cognitive issues. Each of the dementias is managed in a slightly different way.”

Cantway trained with Dr. Norman Foster at the University of Utah, one of the nation’s leading researchers in cognitive health and Alzheimer’s disease. She said this level of cognitive training is a significant resource to have at Memorial Regional Health. Because of her special training in cognitive health, patients of any age can benefit from seeing her for a cognitive evaluation.

“The earlier we catch a neurologic process that affects cognition, the better chance we have of managing it well,” she said. “So, people shouldn’t wait until they are 65 to see me if they have any cognitive concerns.”

The specialty medical field of geriatrics continues to evolve as the healthcare industry learns more about how lifestyle factors influence aging. The areas of care that Cantway said are most common in the geriatric population include chronic conditions or diseases, cancer, geriatric symptoms, and cognitive health.

“For my geriatric patients, I still strongly advocate for healthy diet, exercise, social activities, and mentally stimulating activities, because adopting good lifestyle habits, even later in life, can have beneficial effects on the health of an aging patient,” Cantway said.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms typically develop slowly and get worse over time, according to The Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of all dementia cases — dementia is the general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities that interfere with daily life.

“Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment,” according to The Alzheimer’s Association. “Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis, but can live as long as 20 years, depending on other factors.”

Treatments cannot stop the disease’s progression, but can temporarily slow the worsening of some symptoms. Often, people experiencing memory loss or other possible symptoms of Alzheimer’s might not recognize the signs themselves.

“Signs of dementia may be more obvious to family members or friends,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association. “Anyone experiencing dementia-like symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible.”

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