Many Older Adults Don’t Seek Help For This Condition. Here’s What You Can Do About It This Thanksgiving

Many Older Adults Don’t Seek Help For This Condition. Here’s What You Can Do About It This Thanksgiving

A majority of older adults don’t seek help for dementia symptoms, a new study reports. Experts say that family members can play a pivotal role in encouraging relatives to find treatment. (Photo by Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Corbis)

The holidays aren’t just an occasion to give thanks and eat until you pop — they’re also an opportunity to check up on the physical and mental well-being of older family members.

“When families are together, it really is an opportunity to help one another by observing the changes in behavior and mental functioning that we see in our loved ones,” says Donald Rebhun, M.D., medical director of HealthCare Partners. A proper diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is vital for several reasons: it can identify treatable medical causes for dementia symptoms, such as medication side effects, and it also allows those with Alzheimer’s to start treatments early, when they will be most successful, Rebhun tells Yahoo Health.

That’s why the findings of a new study are so troubling: More than half of older adults with diagnosable dementia have never seen a doctor about memory or thinking concerns.

In the study, about 850 older adults from across the U.S. were examined for dementia. Of the nearly 300 who met the criteria, 55 percent had not talked with a doctor about their symptoms. That means that nationwide, nearly 1.8 million people have dementia but haven’t been medically evaluated for the condition, the authors write in the journal Neurology. The results confirm previous research suggesting that dementia may be significantly underdiagnosed.

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“Doctors tend to reserve the term ‘dementia’ for cognitive impairment that not only comes on gradually but also affects one’s ability to live and function independently,” says study author Vikas Kotagal, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Health System. “Given that this is a hard topic to talk about in a brief office visit, I think many physicians may be reluctant to bring it up on their own.”

About one in seven U.S. adults age 71 and older have some form of dementia, research shows. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and usually affects people age 60 and older, with the risk increasing with age.

Symptoms to watch out for
Distinguishing between normal age-related memory loss and dementia can be tricky to figure out, Kotagal says, even for primary care doctors and specialists.

“Every individual is unique and symptoms are not universal,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas and author of Make Your Brain Smarter.

Just because Dad forgets the pumpkin pie (for the second year in a row) doesn’t, on its own, suggest that he has Alzheimer’s disease. Chapman explains that certain mental processes, such as memory and thought processing speed, inevitably decline with age.

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“Dementia, versus common memory loss, involves two symptoms, with memory problems being one of them,” says Rebhun, who trains other physicians in how to evaluate patients for dementia.

Often the first signs include problems with decision-making and changes in how people make decisions, Chapman explains. Your loved one may not use good judgment or sound logic. For example, your mother might forget to put sugar in the cheesecake, so she sprinkles it on top after the dessert is baked.

Personality and mood changes may also be a sign of dementia. Increased irritability, specifically, is common in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “People tend to snap a little easier, get mad a little easier, and have a little more anxiety than normal,” Rebhun says. In later stages, this can progress to agitation, anger and aggressive behavior. 

Communication problems are another flag. A person with dementia might grasp for words, forget things in the middle of sentences, or have a hard time focusing.

Why seeing a doctor about memory problems matters 
Depression, sleeping disorders, thyroid disorders, alcohol abuse, anxiety, and medication side effects can all cause symptoms similar to those seen in dementia. “Since many of these problems can be treated, it’s very important that a physician do a thorough evaluation,” Rebhun stresses. In fact, one research analysis involving more than 5,600 subjects found that 9 percent of cases presenting with dementia-like symptoms have potentially reversible causes. 

Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, medications can slow its progression. Medications work best when people start them in the early stages of the disease. “While the brain disease is a frightening diagnosis, scientific discoveries are bringing new hope for those living with the disease and those at risk for developing it,” Chapman tells Yahoo Health. “If a disease is diagnosed, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the more opportunity you have to make positive choices in order to prepare for lifestyle changes and preserve existing cognitive abilities.”

How to help a relative who may have dementia
The best thing you can do for an older relative in general, Kotagal says, is to recommend taking advantage of Medicare’s free annual wellness exams for seniors, which began in 2011 under the Affordable Care Act. “You can just bring it up as part of regular conversation, without even mentioning the concerns about memory,” he says. “They just need to contact their regular primary care doctor, and the exam is required to include a cognitive evaluation.” If you’re close enough to your relative that you feel comfortable bringing up your concerns, Kotagal adds, do so in private and emphasize that treatment could help him or her feel better.

Rebhun encourages sharing your observations and concerns with your loved one’s doctor, even through a confidential written note. “When I can get more information from a family member, it really helps me in my evaluation,” he explains. “I’m not going to base a diagnosis on it, but the more data points I can have, the more I can reach out, better evaluate, and better help both the diagnosis or treatment.”

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