Dementia…that single word carries with it a tremendous amount of stigma.  But it is the second most common diagnosis given to older adults. And perhaps the most difficult to accept.  Once that label has been given, people never forget it. As this happened to several of our client this week, I wanted to address two of the questions we are asked most often after someone receives a Dementia diagnosis starting with “What exactly is Dementia and how is it diagnosed?” 

Dementia is an umbrella category that serves as a catch all for different types of cognitive disorders, ranging from simple short or long term memory loss to more specific diagnoses including Alzheimer’s disease.  Dementia diagnoses are usually made by combining someone’s history and experiences with some type of testing, so that objective evidence and observed functioning together form the basis for the diagnosis.  MRIs or other brain scans are helpful to identify vascular dementia and rule out physical causes for cognitive difficulties such as brain tumors.  More extensive neurological and psychological testing are available and can provide objective measures of cognitive abilities and identify specific areas of strengths as well as deficits.

Cognitive screening tools however, are available to anyone regardless of history of symptoms, and are very low cost.  Screening tools are designed to help people identify whether or not a more thorough evaluation is necessary, and scores are broken down into three distinct categories of “Normal, Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), or Dementia”.  Cognitive screening is a great place to start, but it is important to remember that the results may not be conclusive.  For example, if someone’s score results in a determination of MCI, it would be important to follow up with more in-depth testing.  There have been many instances of people who are highly intelligent testing as MCI when further testing indicates Alzheimer’s disease. Their intelligence allows them to compensate for their cognitive deficits on the screening tool, but cannot be sustained through more extensive testing.

Which brings us to another frequently asked question: “Why is it important to be screened or tested?”  That’s an individual decision, but unfortunately at this time there is no cure for Dementia.  However, there are several medications that are believed to slow down the progression of the disease and help keep people living with more mild to moderate forms rather than severe.  If that is the case then starting treatment as early as possible is important to help preserve cognitive functioning.  The decision to use medication is of course an individual one, and needs to be made in consultation with a doctor who can explain the benefits as well as possible side effects.

Counting my blessings while I still can,