Dementia is an acquired chronic impairment of memory and other aspects of intellect that interferes with daily functioning. As we age the occurrence of this disease increases significantly. Data suggest at age 65 approximately 1.5% of Americans have this problem. By the time we are in our 80's this increases to between 20-50 % depending upon the information source. 5.2 million Americans are estimated to have this problem. The scientific community is placing significant resources not only in understanding and treatment considerations but also in the diagnosis of this condition.
A certain amount of memory impairment normally occurs as we age. In the case where we "forget" someone's name it is normal if it is a neighbor or acquaintance but not normal if it is a family member. It is normal to forget where you put something but you eventually figure it out. Someone with dementia forgets that they "forgot". Persons with dementia are usually unaware they are having memory concerns. In normal aging persons worry that their memory is "going".
Most cases occur sporadically; however, a family history of Alzheimer's increases a person's risk over their lifetime. If a person has one direct family member with Alzheimer's dementia their cumulative risk by age 85 is 27% in whites and 44% in blacks!
Signs and symptoms of this condition invariably involve memory impairment. Persons have an impaired ability to learn new information or to recall prior learned information. It tends to show up with short term/recent memory recall, i.e. " what time did you say my doctor's appointment is today"?
Other common findings include language difficulty (word expression or recall) and difficultly with spacial planning such as illustration or model copying as well. Failure to recognize or identify objects is also a sign. Personality changes include: social withdrawal, depression or anxiety feelings, uncharacteristic aggressive or paranoid thoughts.
Testing for abnormally low ability to perform intellectual skills is how doctors evaluate for dementia. More in depth screening may help identify people who appear to be functioning normally but may be starting to have mild problems. As a patient, if there are concerns for yourself or a loved one for developing dementia you may hit the following link to request memory testing. If a person is developing dementia there are medications to help stabilize memory. Also progression over time is the norm for Alzheimer's disease. Medication can slow this progression allowing a person to remain independent and functioning well for a longer period of time. Ruling out other reversible/curable forms of memory loss is important to do as well.
There are advanced brain imaging scans using PET technology. Positron Emission Tomography scans uses special tagged nuclear isotopes to look at diminished brain activity in sections of the brain known to be affected in Alzheimer's disease. This type of testing is available but currently there is no consensus as when or if to order this type of radiology test. Brain MRI's or CT brain scans are often performed mainly to rule out other causes of memory loss or diagnosis that can mimic Alzheimer symptoms.
There are medications for dementia and they are helpful. There currently is no cure nor any medication that stops this problem. There is a prevalent theory that identifying people very early and then placing them on medication could potentially prevent the clinical condition- this has not been proven. The future includes the possibility of using certain blood testing (genetic tests/risk factors in the blood) and possibly PET imaging. If testing suggested someone was highly likely to develop Alzheimer's, a person might be offered early medication ahead of symptoms. This concept is still in a theoretic stage and will need to be rigorously studied and proven to be helpful before such a protocol is followed.
If you feel there is concern for dementia in yourself or a spouse, please discuss this openly and bring your physician into awareness. As a physician I have found it very difficult to pick up on this especially early in the process. The office visit is a fairly simple ritual that a person can get through without showing obvious memory problems.