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Dementia in Aging Americans

Does someone you love have trouble remembering what he or she ate for dinner last night or struggle with everyday activities? Decreased mental activity is a normal sign of getting older, but how can you know when memory loss should be a concern?

Everyday forgetfulness is not a major health concern, but neurological conditions, such as dementia, can impair intellectual function and interrupt daily life. According to the National Institutes of Health, dementia does not refer to any specific mental disease. Instead, the term merely describes the symptoms caused by a number of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Unlike those experiencing normal forgetfulness, individuals with dementia often have trouble recalling events, even when given reminders. However, memory loss alone is not necessarily a sign of dementia.

Lisa Tarkington, chief nursing executive on staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Winnsboro, cites the following examples of common symptoms associated with dementia:

• Confusion or disorientation regarding time, place and situation

• Hallucinations or delusions

• Inability to understand simple instructions

• Major personality changes, mood swings or uncharacteristic aggression

• Poor judgment

• Slowness to answer questions

• Using few words

According to Tarkington, a dementia diagnosis requires a combination of tests and physical exams. In the Senior Care Unit at Texas Health Winnsboro, cognitive and mental status exams are administered in order to determine if dementia is present. These tests are accompanied by physical exercises to learn if the mental distress is physical in origin.

In addition to examinations, a patient’s medical history is key to diagnosing dementia.

“Knowing when a patient began experiencing mental difficulty provides physicians with a more complete picture of the individual’s mental health,” Tarkington says. “Understanding the full spectrum of the patient’s symptoms also can reveal information that may be hidden in test results.”

As with diagnosis, Tarkington explains that treatment of dementia is not the same for each patient and must consist of the proper combination of medication and family support.

While several medications are available to help slow the progression of dementia, the correct dosage varies greatly depending on the stage of the disease. Although dementia is irreversible, medication can help control symptoms and maintain quality of life for
elderly individuals.

Family also is vital in maintaining the care regimen and quality of life for patients with dementia, but it begins with understanding the disease and its effects on the loved one.

“Educating family members is a key element of dementia care because treatment does not stop at our doors,” Tarkington says. “Proper efforts must be made outside of the facility for family members to truly understand this illness so they can help provide adequate care
for the patient.”

For more information about dementia and senior services available at Texas Health Winnsboro, please call 903-342-4071. (Spring 2009)

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