When Thinking and Behavior Decline
July 07, 2019
Submitted by Dawn Grant-Blocker, Hawthorn Court at Ahwatukee
Forgetfulness, temporary confusion, or having trouble remembering a name or word can be a normal part of life. But when thinking problems or unusual behavior starts to interfere with everyday activities — such as working, preparing meals, or handling finances — it’s time to see a doctor. These could be signs of a condition known as dementia.Dementia is a brain disorder that most often affects the elderly. It’s caused by the failure or death of nerve cells in the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause. By some estimates, about one-third of people ages 85 and older may have Alzheimer’s. Although age is the greatest risk factor for dementia, it isn’t a normal part of aging. Some people live into their 90s and beyond with no signs of dementia at all.
Several factors can raise your risk for developing dementia. These include aging, smoking, uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, and drinking too much alcohol. Risk also increases if close family members have had dementia.
The two most common causes of dementia in older people are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, a condition that involves changes to the brain’s blood supply. Vascular dementia often arises from stroke or arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) in the brain. Other causes of dementia include Parkinson’s disease, HIV, head injury, and Lewy body disease. (Lewy bodies are a type of abnormal protein clump in brain cells.)
Dementia in people under age 60 is often caused by a group of brain diseases called frontotemporal disorders. These conditions begin in the front or sides of the brain and gradually spread. A rare, inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease can also occur in people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.
The symptoms of dementia can vary, depending on which brain regions are damaged. “In general, the left side of the brain is involved in language, and the right side is very involved in social behavior,” says Dr. Bruce L. Miller, who directs an NIH-funded dementia center at the University of California, San Francisco. With Alzheimer’s disease, memory-related areas in the lower and back parts of the brain tend to be affected first.
To make a diagnosis, physicians usually ask about a person’s medical history and do a physical exam including blood tests. They also check for thinking, memory and language abilities, and sometimes order brain scans. This evaluation will determine if the symptoms are related to a treatable condition — such as depression, an infection, or medication side effects.
With some types of dementia, a clear diagnosis can’t be made until the brain is examined after death. “There’s no single blood test or brain scan that can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease or some other types of dementia with certainty,” Asthana says. “In these cases, a definite diagnosis can be made only at autopsy.”
All people with Alzheimer’s disease have abnormal protein clumps known as amyloid plaques. These plaques can be seen in Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans using special tracers that bind specifically to amyloid. But extensive plaque buildup can also be found in some people who have no signs of dementia. Because of this uncertainty, amyloid imaging isn’t considered a definitive tool for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.
Different approaches are now being studied as treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s dementia, and certain other forms of dementia. Currently approved medications may improve symptoms, but none can halt or reverse progressive damage to the brain.
Chui notes that a healthy lifestyle can help protect the aging brain. “Regular exercise, a heart-healthy diet, and avoiding smoking can reduce your risk for heart disease as well as dementia,” she says. Engaging in social and intellectually stimulating activities might also help to protect brain function. You can change your trajectory toward a healthier brain by making healthy choices.
Signs of Dementia
- Repeating the same story or question over and over.
- Getting lost in familiar places.
- Delusions or agitated behavior.
- Problems with language, movements, or recognizing objects.
- Memory or concentration problems.
- Difficulty following directions.
- Getting disoriented about time, people, and places.
- Neglecting personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition.
Hawthorn Court at Ahwatukee, established in 2000, is a memory care only community that supports residents with dementia. Residents enjoy a lifestyle that promotes wellness and independence. We offer spacious studio apartments, naturally lit neighborhoods, fresh, home-style meals, and trained and caring tenured staff. To learn more about the life-enriching opportunities for residents or to schedule a tour, give us a call at 480-598-1224. Hawthorn Court at Ahwatukee is located at 13822 S. 46th Place, Phoenix, AZ 85044, off of Ray Road. More information is available at hawthorncourtseniorliving.com.
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