Alzheimer’s or Dementia?
Dementia is a general term, not a specific disease, associated with the decline in mental acuity that can interfere with one’s ability to perform everyday activities safely. Examples include instrumental activities of daily living (IADL’s) such as paying bills, disorientation when driving or within the home, shopping, preparing meals, losing track of wallet/purse, keeping appointments, managing medications and activities of daily living (ADL’s) such as eating/drinking, bathing, dressing, grooming, safely transferring and toileting.
Unlike mild cognitive impairment (MCI) that can naturally occur as we age, dementia is caused by physical damage to brain cells resulting in their inability to communicate with each other.
Symptoms include memory loss, challenges with communications & language, inability to focus and pay attention, reduced reasoning and judgment and impaired visual perception. At least two of these core mental functions must be deemed significantly impaired to be considered dementia.
Common types of dementia include:
- Alzheimer’s disease (60%-80% of dementia diagnoses)
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
- Huntington’s disease
- Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
- Vascular (10% of dementia diagnoses)
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Many dementias are progressive in nature. Symptoms begin slowly and progress through various stages. There is no cure that slows or stops most progressive dementias. Medications may temporarily treat the symptoms but do not slow progression. Non-drug therapies can address some dementia symptoms as well.
While doctors can diagnose dementia, it is difficult to determine the specific type of dementia. A referral to a neurologist or neuropsychologist may be necessary.
Life expectancies vary based upon age, genetics, type of dementia and lifestyle. Leading a lifestyle that includes a heart-healthy diet (Mediterranean diet), regular physical exercise and the avoidance of cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking, alcohol, obesity, high cholesterol & sugar and high blood pressure can reduce one’s risk of acquiring dementia later in life.
Due to the forecasted increase in dementia diagnoses for seniors 65 and older, it’s important to get our affairs in order. Establishing a life care plan that includes a general power of attorney, durable health care power of attorney, durable mental power of attorney, living will and prehospital medical care directive (a.k.a. Do Not Resuscitate) will reduce the stress on our families, while ensuring that our wishes are carried out, in the event that we ever become incapable of making these decisions for ourselves.