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Dementia and Alzheimer's: Better Brain Health and You

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Author name: Lee Health


dementia graphic

Rosalynn Carter’s recent dementia diagnosis has put dementia in the national spotlight. About 6.2 million U.S. adults aged 65 or older live with dementia. Of people aged 90 or over, 35 percent live with dementia, according to some studies. The former first lady and wife of President Jimmy Carter is 95.

But what is dementia, exactly? The terms dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are often used to mean the same thing, leading to confusion about the terms. Actually, they have different meanings.

Dr. Michael Shain, a neuropsychologist with Lee Physician Group in its Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care (Memory Care) Program, clarifies their meanings as we lean into June, which the Alzheimer’s Association recognizes as Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month.

Q: What is dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term, or syndrome, that describes a group of symptoms characterized by cognitive decline.  It affects memory, thinking, behavior, and the ability to perform daily activities.

Dementia isn’t a specific disease. Rather, dementia is a collection of features caused by underlying conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s causes about 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases. There are also other forms of dementia, such as vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and mixed dementia.

Q: What causes dementia?

Dementia isn’t a normal part of aging, by the way. It happens because the nerve cells in our brain—called neurons—become damaged. These damaged neurons lose their ability to communicate with other brain cells and die. Everyone loses some neurons as they age, but people with dementia experience far greater loss. Their thinking skills, also called cognitive abilities, decline to the point of interfering with daily living and the ability to function independently.

Q: What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer's disease, a type of dementia, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that mostly affects older adults. High levels of abnormal protein deposits inside and outside brain cells lead to the degeneration and death of brain cells, especially those in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. As the center of learning and memory in the brain, the hippocampus is often the first area of the brain to be damaged. That’s why memory loss is often the earliest symptom of Alzheimer’s.

READ: More about Alzheimer’s

Q: Can dementia be reversed?

Most changes in the brain that cause dementia don’t go away. In fact, they tend to get worse over time. However, there are some memory problems that resemble dementia but aren’t dementia. These symptoms may be caused by medical conditions such as depression, tumors, excessive use of alcohol, vitamin deficiencies, medication side effects, or problems with the thyroid, kidney, or liver. Treating these conditions may improve thinking and memory.

Q. What are the signs and symptoms of dementia?

The signs and symptoms can vary depending on the type and may include:

  • Experiencing memory loss, poor judgment, and confusion
  • Difficulty speaking, understanding and expressing thoughts, or reading and writing
  • Wandering and getting lost in a familiar neighborhood
  • Trouble handling money responsibly and paying bills
  • Repeating questions
  • Using incorrect words for common familiar objects
  • Taking longer to complete normal daily tasks
  • Losing interest in normal daily activities or events
  • Hallucinating or experiencing delusions or paranoia
  • Acting impulsively
  • Not caring about other people’s feelings
  • Losing balance and problems with movement

Source: National Institute on Aging; Alzheimer’s Association

Q: How is dementia diagnosed?

Early detection of symptoms is important because some causes of dementia can be successfully treated. However, in many cases, the cause of dementia is unknown and can’t be effectively treated. Still, obtaining an early diagnosis can help with managing the condition and planning ahead. In the early stages of dementia, it may be possible for people to continue with their everyday activities.

As far as diagnosing dementia, a person may have to undergo a number of tests. Doctors should first assess whether a person has an underlying, potentially treatable condition related to the decline in their cognitive difficulties.

Beyond that, a diagnosis typically includes a review of a person’s medical and family history that can provide clues about their risk for dementia. Questions will be asked about whether dementia runs in the family, how and when symptoms began, changes in behavior and personality, and if the person is taking certain medications that might cause or worsen symptoms.

The doctor may also perform the following procedures:

  • Cognitive (neuropsychological) and neurological tests.
  • Brain scans
  • Psychiatric evaluation
  • Genetic tests
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tests
  • Blood tests

Source: National Institute on Aging

Q: Is there a way to prevent dementia?

Currently, dementia can’t be prevented. What we do know is that a healthy lifestyle that includes a healthy diet, physical activity, appropriate weight, and control of high blood pressure can lower the risk of certain chronic diseases and boost overall health and well-being.

Interestingly, research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may slow some changes in the brain that may lead to dementia like Alzheimer’s. Scientists continue to investigate how social activity and intellectual stimulation can lower a person’s risk for Alzheimer's as well.

A thorough evaluation by specialists with Lee Health’s Memory Care Program—which includes geriatric providers and a neuropsychologist—can assist with determining the appropriate cognitive diagnosis and identifying treatment options.

To schedule a consultation or make an appointment with Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care (Memory Care) Program, call 239-343-9220.

For more information about dementia:

NIA Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
[email protected]
The NIA ADEAR Center offers information and free print publications about Alzheimer’s and related dementias for families, caregivers, and health professionals. ADEAR Center staff answer telephone, email, and written requests and make referrals to local and national resources.
Explore the website for information and resources on Alzheimer’s and related dementias from across the federal government.

Alzheimer's Association
866-403-3073 (TTY)
[email protected] 

Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
[email protected]

Global Council on Brain Health (AARP)
Learn more about brain-healthy lifestyles and how to live your best life.

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