Senior news: is it Alzheimer's?

Posted: Sunday, August 29, 2010

A growing number of people these days are worried that they have Alzheimer's disease. It is common for such people to hide out, isolate themselves or to want to cover up any clues that they have memory loss, confusion or disorientation. While the temptation is to not let anyone know, getting to the doctor is the most important thing to do. There are a lot of things that cause forgetfulness, many of them treatable and reversible. Ignoring symptoms and delaying that doctor's visit will make matters worse.

The most common "treatable" things which cause memory loss include medications, depression, sleep deprivation, fatigue or stress. These days, many people use more than one medication and they can interact with each other, creating unpleasant side effects. The dose of one or more medications may be too much for the age or size of the person. There may be interactions with over the counter medications or alcohol use. Nutritional problems can also result in dementia. Liver or kidney problems and a variety of infections can impair brain functioning. The sooner someone is diagnosed, the better the chance of keeping the ability to take care of him or herself for as long as possible.

When going to the doctor, take a list of signs or concerns such as "I'm repeating things," "I'm forgetting appointments," or "I'm not as sharp as usual," and give specific examples. The doctor may not have much time and the patient may feel pressured, so that list really helps to remember and communicate what is going on. Oftentimes, taking a friend or family member to help explain what has changed is also very helpful.

One's personal physician or any medical provider can complete the evaluation in order to rule out problems which may be causing the symptoms. Alzheimer's disease is determined through this "diagnosis of exclusion." Only after a very comprehensive assessment does the doctor diagnose probable Alzheimer's disease. The doctor will do an extensive evaluation, including a thorough medical history and a physical exam, including blood tests. One should see a specialist if the case is unusual, if the personal physician makes a referral to a specialist or, if for some reason, the patient is not comfortable with his or her regular doctor's ability or reaction. Once the doctor identifies the actual cause of dementia, he or she can give the proper treatment.

If the doctor suspects the patient has Alzheimer's disease, the earlier it is diagnosed, the more input the patient can have into decisions about his/her life and care. If one is diagnosed later, he or she may not be able to make those decisions. There are some medications available which will help with the symptoms in about half of those diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The two most commonly used medications are Aricept and Namenda and they can be used together. Although everyone reacts differently, the patient may get less confused, language might improve or symptoms may not progress as fast with the help of these medications. People may be able to stay at home longer and can make life better for family members and other caregivers.

"Work with your doctor," advises Amber Smith, education specialist with the Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska. "There is no need to worry or hide your symptoms; help is available."

For more information, contact Smith at 586-6044. She can explain if the symptoms are a part of the normal aging process. She offers free memory screenings and can prepare someone and their family member for the doctor visit.

• Marianne Mills is the program director of Southeast Senior Services (SESS), which offers home and community-based services for older Alaskans throughout the region. SESS is a part of Catholic Community Service and assists all persons regardless of their faith.

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