Alzheimer's & Dementia

The word dementia means deprived of mind. It is a catchall term that covers memory loss, confusion, changes in personality, a decline in thinking skills, and dwindling ability to perform everyday activities.

There are many types of dementia. Alzheimer's disease is the most common. Half or more of people with dementia have Alzheimer's disease. It is caused by the accumulation of tangles and clumps of protein in and around brain cells. These tangles and clumps make it difficult for brain cells to communicate with one another, and can eventually kill them.

Vascular dementia, the second most common type, develops when cholesterol-clogged arteries can't deliver enough oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Sometimes small blockages completely cut off the blood supply to a part of the brain, causing nearby brain cells to die.

The terms dementia and Alzheimer's are often used interchangeably. In part, that's because it is very hard to tell them apart. Usually, a specific type of dementia can only be diagnosed by an autopsy after someone has died.

Dementia affects areas of the brain involved in learning and memory. So a common symptom is difficulty in recalling new information. Memory loss disrupts daily life. An individual with dementia may get lost in a once-familiar neighborhood. He or she may have increasing trouble making decisions, solving problems, or making good judgments. Mood and personality may change. A person with dementia can become more irritable or hostile, or lose interest in almost everything.

Once dementia has developed, it is usually hard to reverse. The goal of treatment is to manage symptoms and slow its progression. Some medications can help slow the intellectual decline in mild to moderate dementia. Psychotherapy techniques like reality orientation and memory retraining can also help people with this condition.

A small percentage of people with dementia develop the condition because of medical issues such as an underactive thyroid gland, an infection, not getting enough vitamin B12, medication side effects, or drinking too much alcohol. In these cases, treating the underlying cause can reverse the dementia.

Alzheimer's & Dementia Articles

Signs of early dementia

Several steps can help someone cope with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). One is staying physically and mentally active, which helps boost thinking skills and may even reduce MCI symptoms. Another is considering medication for MCI symptoms. Some medications may slow the rate of decline, and some may help the brain cells communicate better. Also helpful is making plans for the future now, before reasoning skills decline. This includes updating a will, getting an advance medical directive, and checking out independent living facilities.  More »

Ask the doctor: Blood tests for Alzheimer's disease

Early-diagnosis tests for Alzheimer's disease are in the research stage but are not reliable. Genetic testing may be considered under certain circumstances, but without a good treatment for the disease, testing offers little medical benefit. (Locked) More »

Worried about your memory? Take action

Even when a person’s memory is still within the normal range, noticing certain changes in mental function and being concerned about them can be an early warning sign of future decline. These include difficulty following a group conversation or the story in a TV show or feeling that one’s mental skills are worse than those of friends who are the same age. Other changes are more typical of harmless age-related memory loss, such as walking into a room and forgetting why or misplacing personal items. Sensing changes like these is a good reason to check with a doctor for an assessment of memory and mental function, which can serve as a baseline to compare future changes against. More »

Online Alzheimer's tests: Unscientific and inaccurate

Online tests for Alzheimer’s disease are unreliable and unscientific. Some ask for sensitive personal information. In the end, they won’t reveal whether a person has dementia. People concerned about their memory should talk to their doctors instead. (Locked) More »

When dementia screenings are appropriate

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says there is not enough evidence to support routine screening for dementia or mild cognitive impairment among people ages 65 and older if they have no symptoms. (Locked) More »

Should you be tested for dementia?

Routine screening for dementia is currently not recommended for people without symptoms. Screening can lead to unnecessary worry for a condition that at present has no cure. However, women with significant memory or cognitive issues should see their doctors to determine next steps. More »

High-tech scan reveals protein in the brain linked to Alzheimer's disease

A new brain scan called amyloid PET scanning can detect levels of beta amyloid, an abnormal brain protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Many older people who do not have Alzheimer’s dementia have a significant amount of amyloid protein in their brains, so amyloid PET scans can’t be used as a general test for Alzheimer’s in people whose minds and memory are still functioning within the normal range. However, the test can be helpful when the disease is suspected but still needs to be confirmed. The test is very expensive and may not be covered by insurance. Unless the U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services decides to pay for amyloid PET scanning outside of research studies, its use will probably remain an out-of-pocket expense. (Locked) More »