Recognizing and Diagnosing Dementia at the Earliest Sign

July 26, 2017
Recognizing and Diagnosing Dementia at the Earliest Sign

As people get older, they realize that their brain doesn't function the way it used to and they start to forget things, all of which is considered normal. However, to some, it can be alarming. Christina Prather, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, says just because you start forgetting things, it doesn't mean you have dementia. “We have patients in their 50s who think that because they are starting to forget things, they have dementia. But there are many factors that contribute to memory loss, including depression, lack of sleep, sleep apnea, metabolic issues, anxiety, vitamin deficiencies, or medication side effects that have accumulated over time,” she says. “The person should have a full evaluation to help determine the cause or causes and identify any possible interventions.”

Is It Dementia?

There are many different types of dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease is just one example. “If someone has memory loss that is severe enough to interfere with daily living, or they can’t find words to speak or don’t recognize family, they should be evaluated,” says Dr. Prather. “It is critical to recognize and share these symptoms with your doctor at the earliest signs of impairment.”

While there is no specific test that indicates dementia, doctors can make a diagnosis based on medical history, blood work, a physical exam and a cognitive assessment. A PET scan may also be ordered. This non-invasive, painless scan is able to detect plaques in the brain characterized by Alzheimer’s and some types of dementia.

Encouraging Quality of Life

Tania Alchalabi, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Geriatrics and Palliative Care Physician, says neurodegenerative disorders are progressive, treatment is limited and there is currently no cure. “If dementia or Alzheimer’s is confirmed, we develop a palliative care plan from the beginning to manage the symptoms and lower the risk factors that can make things worse. We also promote independence and guide the caregiver,” she says. “The goal is to improve the quality of life while managing any discomfort.”

Dr. Prather says their goal is to help people with dementia and their families overcome the challenges of dementia to live as well as possible for as long as possible. “There are many great resources available for patients and their caregivers, such as the American Alzheimer’s Association website,” she says. “People can still have a full quality of life, you just need to bring out the person who still lives inside the disease.”

Study Identifies Proteins in the Brain Linked to Dementia

A national study sponsored by the American College of Radiology is planning to enroll 18,000 participants. The purpose of the Imaging Dementia-Evidence for Amyloid Scanning (IDEAS) Study is to learn how PET scan images of the brain can help doctors narrow down a care and possible treatment plan for patients. The imaging is FDA-approved to identify the amyloid plaques in the brain.

To participate in the IDEAS Study, patients must be 65 years of age or older, be a primary Medicare or Medicare Advantage program participant and have demonstrated cognitive deficits as determined by a specialist.

Learn more about The IDEAS Study