Just about everyone has forgotten something at one time or another. Perhaps you misplaced your car keys or can’t remember whether you locked the front door when you’ve gone out. Forgetting things occasionally is normal, particularly as a person ages. However, forgetting things you’ve long known how to do—like making a telephone call or finding your way home—may point to a more serious underlying memory problem, such as mild cognitive impairment, the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, or another form of dementia.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is a general term used for the loss of memory, language, thinking, or problem-solving abilities that are serious enough to interfere with everyday life and routine functions. Some common signs of dementia include the following:
- Difficulty finding the right words.
- Changes in mood.
- Difficulty completing routine tasks.
- Difficulty following story lines.
- A failing sense of direction.
- Asking the same questions or telling the same stories repeatedly.
- Changes in one’s attention span and ability to focus.
- Confusing or failing to recognize/remember people and places.
- Failing to take care of oneself or one’s home/physical surroundings.
- Not being able to follow directions.
While memory loss is a common symptom of many kinds of dementia, changes in memory alone do not mean that a person has dementia. Doctors will diagnose an individual with dementia only if two or more brain functions—such as memory and language skills—are significantly impaired.
Although dementia is increasingly common in elderly individuals, dementia is a serious medical condition and not a normal part of the aging process.
Having Dementia Diagnosed
Caregivers who are worried about their clients’ cognitive health should ensure that the client sees a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor will conduct a thorough physical and mental evaluation of the client and make an appropriate diagnosis. The client will need to have a complete checkup, including bloodwork and urine tests to rule out other causes of cognitive decline. They will also likely undergo a series of mental assessments as well, to check their memory, problem-solving skills, and math and language abilities.
A complete medical exam for memory loss should review the person’s medical history, including their use of prescription and over-the-counter medications, diet, past medical problems, and general health. A correct diagnosis depends on accurate details, so in addition to talking with the patient, the doctor may also ask a family member, caregiver, or close friend for additional information.
Helpful Practices for Working with Someone Who Has Dementia
Prescription Medications. Some prescription medications to specifically treat some symptoms of progressive dementias are now available. Although these drugs do not cure the disease or reverse existing brain damage, they can minimize the worsening of symptoms temporarily. This may improve a client’s quality of life, ease the burden on caregivers, and delay admission to a nursing home or other facility. However each dementia patient is different, and these drugs are not effective for everyone.
Adhering to Routines. Many patients, particularly those in the early stages of dementia, often benefit from adhering to clear daily routines and practicing tasks designed to improve performance in specific aspects of cognitive functioning. These may include memory aids and devices, computerized recall devices or note-taking. These can help clients maintain their day-to-day lives independently for longer. Early diagnosis is key to helping families and caregivers plan for an uncertain future.
Keeping an Active Mind. Try as much as possible to help the client keep his or her mind active. Mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, solving puzzles and playing word games, and memory training might delay the onset of dementia and decrease its effects.
Staying Physically and Socially Active. Physical activity and social interaction may delay the onset of dementia or reduce its symptoms. See that the client moves and exercises as much as possible. A morning or afternoon walk (weather permitting, of course) as well as chair or other exercises that can be done from a sitting position are generally helpful. Social interaction with friends, neighbors, and relatives should also be encouraged. These can include telephone conversations, in-person visits, or, when possible, email messages, “ZOOM” (or other technologically-assisted) calls, etc.
No Smoking. Some scientific studies have shown that smoking in middle age and beyond may increase the risk of dementia and blood vessel conditions. Help the client do whatever is helpful to stop smoking as soon as possible.
Getting Enough Vitamins. Some studies have shown that people with lower levels of Vitamin D in their blood are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Vitamin D can be obtained through sun exposure, certain foods, and vitamin supplements. Taking a daily B-complex and C vitamin may also be helpful.
Maintaining a Healthy Diet. Eating a healthy diet is important for many reasons, but a diet such as the Mediterranean diet—rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in certain fish and nuts—might promote health and lower your client’s risk of developing dementia. This type of diet also improves cardiovascular health, which may help lower dementia risk. Have your client try eating fatty fish, such as salmon three times a week, and a handful of nuts—especially almonds and walnuts—daily. Make sure that your client has no allergies to these foods.
- Getting Quality Sleep. Encourage your client to practice good sleep habits and have them talk to their doctor if they snore loudly or have periods where they stop breathing or gasp during sleep.
While there is no cure for dementia, having your client engage in these practices may help them cope more effectively with dementia and contribute to a greater quality of life for them.
About the Author
Cynthia Barnes, PhD, lives in Denver, Colorado and is an experienced educational and training professional at all educational levels. Dr. Barnes has a background in organizational development and change and systems thinking/operating. She is a published author with exceptional written, oral, and interpersonal relationship skills. Dr. Barnes has consulted with organizations and school systems throughout the United States and in Canada, Germany, Micronesia, and South Africa.