Living Well: The differences between age-related memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s
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 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.”
Ruth Rose Hutton was a fighter. As she aged, multiple falls compromised her independence, but her spirit endured. She always seemed to recover, surprising her doctors and family, who were grateful to have her in their lives until her death at age 87.