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Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia

Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia: Diagnosis, Causes, and Risk Factors

Certain diseases and disorders are difficult to diagnose, because their symptoms resemble some of the common signs of aging. Stumbling to find the right word might be a sign of dementia, but it’s also extremely common as we get older.

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. This worldwide effort seeks to bring attention to Alzheimer’s and other dementias and inspire people to lead the charge for a cure. The intention of this post is to educate readers on the symptoms, causes, and risk factors of dementia.

Is Dementia a Disease?

No, dementia is not a disease. It is a term that describes the category of conditions whose symptoms include declining cognitive function that affect a person’s daily life. The most common symptom is memory loss, particularly problems with short-term memory.

There are numerous dementia symptoms. However, before receiving a diagnosis, a patient must exhibit significant impairment in at least two of the following mental functions:

  • Memory
  • Communication (speech or writing)
  • Mental focus (paying attention)
  • Rational thinking (judgment and decision making)
  • Visual perception (judging distance, color contrast, reading)

If you or a loved one has two or more of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your physician right away.

What Are the Most Common Types of Dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for around 70 percent of all cases. The second most common type is vascular dementia, which may occur after a stroke.

Although Alzheimer’s occurs most often in people over the age of 65, it is not a normal part of aging. In fact, each year, early onset Alzheimer’s affects round 200,000 Americans who are under age 65.

How Is Dementia Diagnosed?

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s or any other type of dementia requires a close study of the patient’s medical history as well as a physical examination. Diagnostic testing and a discussion of daily habits and cognitive function also play a role. However, diagnosing the type of dementia is more challenging, since symptoms for the different types often overlap. Your primary care physician may refer you to a neurologist or other specialist to determine whether you have Alzheimer’s or another condition.

Preparing for Your Doctor Visit

To get the most benefit from your doctor visit, come prepared to discuss:

  • Your symptoms: When did they begin? How often do they occur? Include as much information as possible in a log or journal.
  • Medical issues: Create a list of both past and current medical problems. Include any family history of medical issues that caused memory loss.
  • Medications: Bring a complete list of all medications you currently take, both prescription and over-the-counter. Include dosages and how long you’ve taken the medication using either a log or journal.

Your doctor will ask questions. Answer them honestly to aid in an accurate diagnosis.

What Causes Dementia?

Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are caused by damage to brain cells that inhibits their ability to communicate with each other. Your brain has numerous discrete areas, each one responsible for a different cognitive function. For example, the hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning. It is also often the first region of the brain to be damaged in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which is why memory loss is the most common early symptom.

Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia

Is There Treatment for Dementia?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for most types of dementia. Certain conditions that cause cognitive issues may be improved, but they are not what most people think of when they think dementia. These include thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, excessive alcohol use, and depression.

Diseases like Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia cannot be cured. They are also progressive, meaning the condition gets worse over time. There are no treatments that slow the diseases’ progress, but there are medications and other therapies that may help alleviate symptoms.

However, doctors are constantly looking for a cure, as well as for volunteers to aid in their research.

What Are Dementia Risk Factors?

Although doctors know that brain cell damage causes dementia, nobody knows what causes that damage to occur. Age and genetics are the most common risk factors, though. Around 11 percent of people aged 65 or older have Alzheimer’s disease, with that number jumping to around 30 percent once people hit 85.

Family history is the next highest risk factor. You are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease if an immediate family member, i.e. a parent or sibling, has it. Your risk increases if more than one family member has the disease.

Lifestyle Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

While you have no control over age or genetics, research is showing that there are some risk factors related to lifestyle, meaning you can change them.

  • Cardiovascular: A rich network of blood vessels nourishes your brain. If that network is compromised, it deprives your brain of the nutrients it needs to function properly. There is a direct link to vascular dementia, but scientists also see it in Alzheimer’s and dementia with Lewy bodies. Improved heart health improves brain health; lower blood pressure, manage blood sugar, maintain a healthy weight, and don’t smoke.
  • Healthy diet: Following a heart-healthy diet improves both heart and brain. Doctors recommend lean protein, seafood, whole grains, healthy fats, and plenty of fruits and veggies.
  • Exercise: Increase both oxygen and blood flow to the brain with regular physical activity and you may lower your risk of dementia.

Much of today’s research focuses on lifestyle changes to help prevent dementia.

Medicare and Dementia

If you have been diagnosed with dementia, you may qualify for a Special Needs Plan. Additional requirements include:

  • Living in a nursing home or requiring home nursing care
  • Being eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid

If you have questions about a Special Needs Plan or your other Medicare options, call us toll-free at 855-350-8101 to speak to a licensed agent.

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