5 facts to help you better understand dementia
By Heather Dobbert, M.S.W, LICSW, CDP
Misunderstandings about Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are common. They’re often due to stereotypes, myths and outdated information that reinforce fears about dementia and cognitive change.
To help clear up confusion, I want to share the facts about five frequently misunderstood aspects of dementia. As a memory specialist, I often hear questions about these topics from people who are living with dementia and their loved ones, and those who have noticed what they fear could be dementia symptoms. I help them understand behavioral changes they see in themselves or others, find answers to their many questions, and plan their next steps after a diagnosis of dementia.
Fact #1: Confusion and major brain changes aren’t a normal part of aging.
Everyone makes a bad decision occasionally, forgets to pay a bill or loses a set of keys. Those now-and-then memory lapses can be normal among older adults. Aging does affect memory. But dementia is not a normal part of aging.
That’s why it’s so important to be able to determine whether the experiences you or your loved one are having are normal memory loss or an early sign of dementia. If you’re concerned about symptoms of confusion or memory loss, I recommend seeing a doctor to look for a diagnosis early. Don’t wait. An unrelated medical or psychological condition may cause similar symptoms. If dementia is a factor, it’s important to plan for treatment and future care.
Fact #2: Risk factors don’t mean you’re destined to have brain disease.
Being over 65 and having a family history of dementia are both risk factors for dementia. Yet, the presence of those risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll experience dementia.
In some families, one or more siblings develop dementia, while the others don’t show any sign of it. And only 5% of 65- to 74-year-olds experience Alzheimer’s dementia, which is the most common type. The incidence of the disease increases with age. Among Americans 85 and older, 35% are living with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report.
Fact #3: Some medications can cause symptoms that can be mistaken for dementia.
Sometimes medication side effects may seem like dementia. For example, drugs called anticholinergics act on a chemical messenger (acetylcholine) that’s important for attention, concentration and memory. Anticholinergics that can produce dementia-like symptoms include common over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl and sleep aids like Tylenol PM, Aleve PM and Nytol.
Prescription medications with anticholinergic properties include certain antidepressants, antihistamines, antipsychotics and antispasmodics, as well as some medications for urinary incontinence.
Fact #4: Medical conditions can cause dementia-like symptoms.
If you or a loved one have symptoms that you suspect could be dementia, see a doctor for an evaluation. If it’s dementia, you can plan for appropriate treatment and care.
But it may not be dementia at all. The following conditions can cause memory issues that may be mistaken for dementia:
- Stress, anxiety or depression
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Blood clots, tumors or infections in the brain
- Concussion or other head injury
- Thyroid, kidney or liver issues
- Too much alcohol
- Medication side effects
When the conditions are treated, the memory issues usually go away.
Fact #5: Maintaining good health as you get older may help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia.
Experts are studying the role a healthy lifestyle may play in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. For example, conditions that raise the risk of cardiovascular problems may also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. So, you may be able to reduce the risk of developing dementia by controlling conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which can contribute to cardiovascular issues.
To maintain brain health along with your general health, experts recommend striving to:
- Eat a nutritious, healthy diet
- Manage conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, which can affect the cardiovascular system
- Limit alcohol use and quit using tobacco
- Maintain social connections and intellectual activity
- Be physically active
- Avoid head trauma by wearing a seat belt, using a helmet when participating in sports and preventing falls at home
Where to learn more
If you have questions about Alzheimer’s or other dementias—such as Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal disorders, vascular dementia or others—you can find more information on these websites:
- Basics of Alzheimer's disease and dementia (National Institute on Aging)
- Alzheimer's disease and healthy aging (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Alzheimer's and related dementias (National Institutes of Health)
- Alzheimer’s Caregiving (National Institute on Aging)
- Brain Health Conversation Guide (National Alliance for Caregiving)
- Family Caregiver Toolbox (Caregiver Action Network)
You can also call the 24/7 Alzheimer’s Association Helpline at 1-800-272-3900 (TRS 711) for information or to request an individual care consultation.
Heather Dobbert is a Memory Specialist and Behavioral Health Case Manager for Fallon Health. She provides complimentary consultations to Fallon members and their loved ones through the Care Consultation Program of the Alzheimer’s Association (Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter).
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