A recent article in the UK Telegraph reported on a survey showing that two thirds of people over the age of 50 are more afraid of developing dementia than of getting cancer. Other surveys show similar percentages.
One reason for this intense fear of Alzheimer’s is obvious. While many types of cancer can be cured, most types of dementia cannot. However, another reason is that the idea of being betrayed by our brains to the point that we are essentially lost in the disease is abhorrent to most of us.
This fear, unfortunately, tends to make many people less than willing to see a physician for dementia testing even when they are showing signs that point to the illness. People don’t want to hear that they have dementia. Refusing to be examined assures that they won’t hear those words even though the reality is that living in denial can be counterproductive. Many conditions can cause dementia-like symptoms and if they are caught early, damage can often be reversed.
The importance of examining all drugs - prescription and OTC
The side effects of many prescription and over-the-counter medications can include memory problems and personality changes. An illustration of what a prescription drug can do came from a conversation with a friend of mine. Her mother had been diagnosed by a neurologist as having Alzheimer’s disease. As my friend’s mother’s cognitive condition kept worsening, her doctor continued to look for answers. During one office visit the doctor decided to take my friend’s mother off of a drug she was taking for incontinence to see if that made a difference. Much to everyone’s surprise, my friend’s mother, over a short period of time, returned to her pre-dementia self.
Other potential causes of dementia-like symptoms
Infections, such as the common urinary tract infection (UTI) can cause dementia-like symptoms, particularly in older people. Depression, thyroid problems, alcohol and/or drug abuse and vitamin deficiencies are also possible reasons for these symptoms. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of most aging people to have a complete physical at least yearly and have any health issues monitored by their doctors. It’s also important for patients and their loved ones to know exactly what medications are being taken so that changes in personality, memory or behavior can be monitored at home.
If you or someone you love is having issues that could point to dementia, it’s important that a thorough checkup be conducted by a qualified physician such as a neurologist.
Having a loved one accompany you for such an examination is good for several reasons. One is that having a trusted person by your side can often help alleviate some nervousness about the exam. This person can also serve as a note taker. Having someone to take notes can be an important enhancement to the experience since it’s easy to forget or become confused about information learned during the exam.
Your partner can also remind you to tell the doctor about issues that you may otherwise forget to mention. It’s also good to have an informed partner so that if the doctor seems unconcerned about something like the medications being taken, that person can speak up.
What to expect when examined for possible dementia
The national Alzheimer’s Association suggests that you be prepared for an exam that includes:
- A thorough medical history
- Mental status testing: There are several office mental examinations, both written and verbal, that may be used alone or in combination.
- A physical and neurological exam
- Tests such as blood tests and brain imaging (scans). PET scans are often used when Alzheimer’s disease is suspected.
Newly developed blood tests are showing promise in detecting Alzheimer’s disease at a very early stage, as are spinal fluid tests. These tests aren’t generally available for everyone at this time, however they should be more accessible before too long. Other non-invasive tests, such as an eye exam,are also in late-stage testing.
While there is still no cure for most types of dementia, there are prescription drugs that help some people. Also, it’s been shown that regular exercise, a good diet and an active brain may slow symptoms for a significant number of people.
For all of the reasons mentioned above, as well as the opportunity to plan for the future care and the future of one’s family, it’s important that anyone who suspects that he or she may have dementia be examined as early in the process as possible. Denial will not change the reality of dementia and it could interfere with the diagnosis of a curable disease.
News Agencies (2014, August 4) Older people are more scared of dementia than cancer, poll finds. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/elderhealth/11008905/Older-people-are-more-scared-of-dementia-than-cancer-poll-finds.html
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.