Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.
Amma is fiercely independent. “I’ll take care of myself as long as I can,” she insists. Living by herself, she manages all her needs. Not being a burden on others is a matter of pride for her, and we, her children, are really proud of her. A couple of months ago, however, we began to notice changes that made us uneasy. On a shopping trip one day, she couldn’t recollect why she’d come after we got to the store. Last month, after dinner at her home, she wondered aloud if she had taken her medicines, although we had seen her do so just fifteen minutes earlier. She asked me over a few days ago to help move some boxes but didn’t remember that when I got there. Were her memory lapses normal? She seemed just fine otherwise!
We all forget things. I thought I left the car keys right here, but I don’t see them now. Did I lock the front door? Did I turn off the stove? It was really embarrassing – not remembering her name when she came up to say hello at the party last night. Memory lapses are commonplace, and we generally brush them off casually – even jokingly sometimes, saying “I had a senior moment,” implying that such behavior is associated with aging. However, it’s really important we learn to recognize when such incidents are not normal memory lapses, but signs of something more serious – signs of dementia.
Forgetfulness is often caused by normal, age-related memory loss. It can also result from lack of sleep, or be induced by stress or depression, even in younger people. When it is part of a larger pattern, however, it could be a warning sign of dementia; an umbrella term that describes a collection of symptoms including changes in thinking, memory, or other cognitive functions. Dementia can be caused by a number of disorders that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, or Lewy Body disease – to name a few. People with dementia have significantly impaired intellectual functioning that interferes with normal activities and relationships.
The Alzheimer’s Association provides a very useful guide to recognizing the 10 early signs or symptoms of dementia:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
- Challenges in planning or solving problems.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks.
- Confusion with time or place.
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
- New problems with words in speaking or writing.
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
- Decreased or poor judgment.
- Withdrawal from work or social activities.
- Changes in mood and personality.
Here are some examples of such behavior: Trouble balancing a checkbook. Forgetting dates and events. Repeating the same questions over again. Trouble following a recipe they’ve used for years. Difficulty concentrating or taking longer to do things than before. Remembering directions to a place they have visited often. Forgetting where they are or how they got there. Inability to keep up with a group conversation. Losing things and/or accusing others of stealing. Giving up hobbies and other regular activities. Losing interest in social activity. Experiencing sudden mood swings, or easily getting fearful or anxious. If you begin to see repeated patterns of these kinds of behavior in yourself, a family member, or a friend, do not ignore them!
A slight, but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills is called mild cognitive impairment or MCI. MCI usually does not significantly affect a person’s ability to carry out his or her daily activities, although you can usually spot its symptoms if you know what you are looking for. An early diagnosis of MCI and identification of possible causes – such as the side effects of medication – is very important. People with MCI (this includes about 15-20% of seniors over 65) are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related diseases. Some in this population remain stable or get back to normal cognition if the underlying cause can be removed. In many cases, however, MCI is an early stage in the onset of Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related diseases.
Alzheimer’s disease is one of several terminal, progressive brain disorders with no known cause or cure. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a few drugs for the treatment of its symptoms. However, memory, cognitive functions, and the ability to care for oneself continue to decline, until the individual has little awareness of his or her surroundings and requires round-the-clock supervision and care, including help with personal care and all other activities of daily living.
It’s therefore even more important to contact a doctor as early as possible for a thorough examination if a parent or other family member shows signs of cognitive impairment or dementia. A specialist in cognitive function can conduct a thorough examination and evaluation that includes physical exams, diagnostic imaging, and neuropsychological testing, to determine whether these are symptoms of normal aging, of MCI that is potentially reversible, or of a condition that will eventually progress to dementia. There is no single definitive test; neurologists, geriatricians, and psychiatrists typically use a combination of tests and assessments in their diagnosis.
The statistics on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are grim. Around 50 million people live worldwide today with dementia-related disorders. Alzheimer’s Association estimates that six million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s, increasing to 13 million by 2050. Dementia and Alzheimer’s related deaths increased by 16% during the current COVID pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks it the sixth leading cause of death in the United States; it kills more than breast and prostate cancers combined. Between 2000 and 2019, deaths from heart disease decreased by 7.3%, while Alzheimer’s related deaths increased by 145%. 15% of the population 70 and older has dementia. 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Dementias will cost the US an estimated $355 billion this year, not accounting for more than 11 million people who provide unpaid care for family members or friends.
This is a national and worldwide crisis, and we need to learn to recognize potential signs of dementia and act early if we see them. We also need to learn how to deal with dementia. A subsequent article will discuss what to do if Amma receives a dementia diagnosis.
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org