5 facts to help you better understand dementia

5 facts to help you understand dementia better

Posted on 02/06/2021 by Fallon Health

Written by Heather Dubert, MSW, LICSW, CDP

There is widespread misunderstanding about Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. They are often due to stereotypes, myths, and outdated information that reinforce concerns about dementia and cognitive change.

To help clear up the confusion, I want to share the facts about five frequently misunderstood aspects of dementia. As a memory specialist, I often hear questions on these topics from people with dementia and their loved ones, and those who have noticed that what they fear may be symptoms of dementia. I help them understand the behavioral changes they see in themselves or others, find answers to their many questions, and plan their next steps after a dementia diagnosis.

Fact #1: Confusion and major brain changes are not a normal part of aging.

Everyone makes a bad decision every now and then, forgetting to pay a bill or losing a set of keys. These occasional memory lapses can be normal among older adults. Aging affects memory. But dementia is not a normal part of aging.

That’s why it’s so important to be able to determine if you or a loved one’s experiences are normal memory loss or an early sign of dementia. If you are concerned about symptoms of confusion or memory loss, I recommend seeing a doctor to seek a diagnosis early. do not wait. An unrelated medical or psychiatric condition may cause similar symptoms. If dementia is a factor, it is important to plan for treatment and future care.

Fact #2: Risk factors don’t mean you’re destined for brain disease.

Being over 65 and having a family history of dementia are two risk factors for developing dementia. However, having these risk factors does not necessarily mean that you will develop dementia.

In some families, one or more siblings develop dementia, while others show no sign of it. Only 5% of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type. The incidence of the disease increases with age. Among Americans 85 and older, 35% live with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures Report from the Alzheimer’s Association.

Fact #3: Some medications can cause symptoms that can be confused with dementia.

Sometimes the side effects of medications can look like dementia. For example, drugs called anticholinergics act on a chemical messenger (acetylcholine) important for attention, focus, and memory. Anticholinergics that can produce dementia-like symptoms include common over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl and sleep aids such as Tylenol PM, Aleve PM, and Nytol.

Prescription medications with anticholinergic properties include some antidepressants, antihistamines, antipsychotics, and antispasmodics, as well as some medications for urinary incontinence.

Fact #4: Medical conditions can cause dementia-like symptoms.

If you or someone in your family has symptoms that you suspect may be dementia, see your doctor for an evaluation. If dementia is dementia, you can plan appropriate treatment and care.

But it may not be dementia at all. The following conditions can cause memory problems that may be confused with dementia:

  • Stress, anxiety and depression
  • delirium
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Blood clots, tumors, or infections in the brain
  • concussion or other head injury
  • Thyroid, kidney and liver problems
  • Too much alcohol
  • Medication side effects

When these conditions are treated, memory problems usually go away.

Fact #5: Maintaining good health as you age may help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia.

Experts are studying the role that a healthy lifestyle may play in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. For example, conditions that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease may also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, you may be able to reduce your risk of dementia by controlling conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, which can contribute to cardiovascular problems.

To maintain brain health along with your overall health, experts recommend striving to:

  • Eat a nutritious and healthy diet
  • Managing conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, which can affect the cardiovascular system
  • Reducing alcohol use and quitting tobacco use
  • Maintaining social ties and intellectual activity
  • Be physically active
  • Avoid head injuries by wearing a seat belt, using a helmet when participating in sports and preventing falls at home

Where do you learn more

If you have questions about Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia — such as Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal disorders, vascular dementia, or others — you can find more information at these websites:

You can also call the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-272-3900 (TRS 711) for information or to request a one-on-one care consultation.

Heather Dubert is a Memory Specialist and Behavioral Health Case Manager at Fallon Health. Offers free counseling to Fallon members and their loved ones through the Alzheimer’s Association Care Counseling Program (Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter).

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