November 9, 2010 in Features

Dr. Hideg: Forgetting things not always sign of dementia

Dr. Alisa Hideg
 

Do you ever forget things? A birthday, a meeting, something you were supposed to pick up at the grocery?

Sometimes I feel like I can’t remember anything unless I write it down.

When you experience this, is it early onset dementia? Rare, but it does happen. Or is it a reflection of living an overly busy life?

Forgetting things occasionally or needing to make lists is a natural result of being busy. Memory problems associated with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia can be similar, but different.

For instance, you might forget to buy the gallon of milk on the way home that your spouse asked you to pick up, but once reminded, you remember hearing the request.

For a sufferer of dementia, even after being told of it again, the request does not ring a bell. It is like it never happened.

Signs of dementia may include:

• Memory lapses interfering with daily life.

• Decreased ability to make plans or solve problems.

• Trouble finishing familiar tasks.

• Confusion about time or place.

• Problems understanding and relating to images.

• Difficulty with language and reading.

• Poor judgment.

• Mood and personality changes.

You can find detailed explanations of the signs from the Alzheimer’s Association (877-474-8259, www.alz.org). If you notice possible signs of dementia in yourself or someone you know, consult your health care provider.

Unfortunately, there is not yet a test to determine if you have Alzheimer’s (research is being done to establish a blood test or a spinal fluid test), so the first thing is to rule out other causes of dementia such as blood vessel problems, head injury, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. Some of these are treatable and so the progress of the dementia may be stopped.

The National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association are collaborating to establish new criteria for diagnosing Alzheimer’s specifically.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s dementia, but scientists are searching for treatments every day. Different classes of blood pressure medications, statin cholesterol medications and certain B vitamins are all being studied for their potential abilities to delay, stop or prevent the disease.

Physicians often recommend keeping healthy and active to help reduce the risk of dementia or to keep it from getting worse.

Higher than normal cholesterol in the middle of life significantly increases dementia in later life. Smoking more than a half pack of cigarettes per day when you are in your 40s and 50s increases your risk as you age, and smoking two packs a day will double your risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, according to a study published this year.

Research done by Group Health Cooperative demonstrated that exercising three or more times a week decreases your risk, and there is ongoing research on benefits of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and flax seed oils.

Keeping your mind engaged and challenged has also been shown to be helpful. Scientists are hopeful that ongoing research will yield more information about preventing and delaying many types of dementia.

Since there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, you might be wondering why a person would want to get a diagnosis as soon as it is suspected. If it is one of the treatable forms of dementia, an earlier diagnosis can mean better preservation of brain function.

It can also allow a person to think about and discuss with family members how the disease should be handled as it progresses. Then a plan can be put into place for changing living arrangements as abilities change.

Some people may choose to participate in clinical trials for new treatments, and patients and family members can join care and support groups to develop a support network for all involved.

Dementia of all types can be a struggle for the person diagnosed with the disease and for those who are caring for them. The Alzheimer’s Association has a 24-hour helpline (800-272-3900) with Alzheimer’s information, clinical trial information and support.

There are many aspects of having or coping with dementia that can feel very isolating, but if you reach out to others, there is so much information and common experience that it can make it easier.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your questions and comments to drhideg@ghc.org.

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