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Alzheimer’s, Dementia or Just Aging?

It’s what we don’t know that we don’t know

By Kae Hammond

It’s very common to fear what we don’t understand and then hide behind blinders, living in denial or buried in fear. This pattern usually causes more problems than are necessary.

This is certainly true around the subject of memory loss. We see some changes in ourselves or a loved one and imagine the worst–something we don’t want happening–and then, in a cloak of emotional protection, we ignore it.

Alzheimer’s and dementias are exactly where cancer was 50-70 years ago.

  • We don’t know what causes it.
  • We don’t know how to stop it.
  • We’re all terrified it will happen to us.
  • We don’t have a cure.

What is dementia? Dementia is a syndrome, a collection of symptoms, and the umbrella term for memory issues just as cancer is to all types of cancer. There are 85-90 types of dementia with Alzheimer’s being the most prevalent form today. So, dementia is not a complete diagnosis, and it is essential that you know what type of dementia someone is suspected of having so they are treated properly. All cancers are treated specifically to the type–the same is true for dementias.

So what does it mean to have a dementia?

  • Two parts of your brain are actively dying and one is always related to memory.
  • It can’t be fixed or stopped.
  • It’s constantly changing.
  • It’s terminal.

Before you jump to conclusions and attribute behavior changes to Alzheimer’s or other dementia, consider whether the changes are permanent and/or treatable.

According to doctors at such esteemed medical centers as the Mayo Clinic, UCSF Memory & Aging Center, and the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, there are many conditions that can cause memory slips among other ‘dementia-type’ behaviors that are treatable, if identified soon enough. Some examples are:

  • Brain tumors;
  • Changes in blood sugar, sodium and calcium levels;
  • Low levels of vitamin B-12;
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus (the build-up of fluid inside the skull, leading to brain swelling);
  • Use of certain medications, including cimetadine (brand name Tagamet) and some cholesterol-lowering medications;
  • Depression;
  • Chronic alcohol abuse.

So it’s very important to see your physician and request full blood and urine panels to uncover hidden issues and rule out forms of dementia. Should the results of testing leave the door open for possible dementia, then brain imaging and neuropsychological testing are the next steps in discovery.

Knowledge is always our greatest tool in life. And only fact-based rather than myth-driven information will give you the critical edge–the edge you need and deserve if you or someone you love is exhibiting characteristics and behaviors that are raising yellow flags. Alzheimer’s and other dementias exact an enormous toll on the family caregiver/partner, usually a spouse or adult child, who is thrust into a bewildering world with no roadmap. Learn everything you can about it and how to manage it.

Be brave: Boldly going forward will greatly benefit your loved one and you.

Kae Hammond is founder and president of Dementia Help Center; author of Pathways: A Guidebook for Dementia & Alzheimer’s Family Caregivers and host of “Care for the Family Caregiver” on 95.9FM The Oasis every Sunday at 7AM. For more information call (877) 699.3456 or visit www.dementiahelpcenter.com.

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