Diagnosing dementia, Alzheimer’s
Updated: May 16
At Desert Haven Home Care and Apollo Residential Assisted Living, we have come to know the devastating impacts of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – the toll it takes on its victims, their families, caregivers and their community of friends. We are honored to work with those of our residents who suffer from these two debilitating conditions, and we know that controlling risk factors are only possible through early diagnosis and treatment.
We are happy to share some of the latest news regarding dementia and Alzheimer’s below, as well as some tips in our “Make it easy, take it easy” section at the end of this article.
What to know
Annually, the number of people diagnosed with dementia increases, making your knowledge or familiarity with the signs and symptoms of the condition an important weapon in dealing with the condition. Early diagnosis can help providers treat symptoms and help slow memory loss.
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, irreversible disorder of the brain that eventually destroys thinking and memory skills and slowly affects the ability to complete routine tasks. Dementia is a general term referring to a severe decline in mental ability, significant enough to interfere with activities of daily living. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60-80 percent of dementia cases and impacting 4 to 6 million people in the U.S.
Many older adults with late-onset Alzheimer's experience symptoms in their mid-60s. The occurrence of early-onset Alzheimer's is rare, but may occur in people in their 30s to 60s. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer's disease among senior-age individuals. Among the causes of Alzheimer's are brain cell death and tissue loss; plaques and tangles are prime suspects. Plaques are abnormal protein fragments, while tangles are dead or dying cells’ twisted strands of another protein. Further, Alzheimer’s tissue has far fewer nerve cells and synapses than a healthy brain.
Dementia and the latest research
According to a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the current body of research on dementia treatment does not properly reflect the perspectives of diverse communities, including people of various races, ethnicities, ages, genders and more. The study reviews the consistency of current research on dementia treatment for people with dementia and their families, and offers recommendations that include a greater sharing of information about key findings, lessons learned and promising practices of not only research but treatment as well.
It is important to remember that people with dementia – their care partners and caregivers, too – are entitled to programs that provide care and assistance tailored to their specific needs. It's promising that many dementia-care strategies have shown early promise.
In the process of diagnosing Alzheimer’s, doctors analyze their patients’ signs and symptoms and perform a number of other tests. Such an assessment is the critical first step toward receiving treatment and care, as well as education about and an understanding of future steps.
The following are early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s that help in detection of the disease:
Impaired memory, such as problems in remembering events
Lack of concentration or problem solving
Difficulty in finishing daily tasks
Mood changes, such as hyperactivity or depression
Poor decision making or poor judgment
Alzheimer's dementia impacts different phases of your life. With medical science’s growing understanding of the condition, it is important to get a proper diagnosis as soon as possible.
Physical and neurological exam
A physical examination is done by your healthcare provider to determine overall neurological health by testing the following.
Muscle strength and muscle tone
Ability to walk and get up from a chair
Senses of sight and hearing
Balance and coordination
Other possible causes of memory loss and confusion, such as thyroid deficiency or vitamin deficiencies, can be ruled out through blood tests.
Mental status and neuropsychological testing
A quick mental status examination can be administered by your doctor to determine your memory and other thinking abilities. When compared to people of a similar age and education level, longer types of neuropsychological testing can provide more information about the mental function. These tests can aid in assessing a diagnosis and can also be used to monitor the disease’s progression in the future.
Brain images are also used to identify visible disorders associated with conditions other than Alzheimer's disease, such as strokes, injuries or tumors that may lead to cognitive changes. Doctors may be able to identify complex brain changes caused by Alzheimer's disease using new imaging applications that are typically used only in major medical centers or in clinical trials.
Below are three such imaging methods:
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
An MRI produces accurate images of the brain by using radio waves and a strong magnetic field. Although MRI scans can reveal brain shrinkage in areas linked to Alzheimer's disease, they can also rule out other conditions. For an assessment of dementia, an MRI is usually preferred over a CT scan.
Computerized tomography (CT)
Commonly called a CT scan, this is a special X-ray technology that is used to generate cross-sectional images of the brain. It is most often performed to detect head injuries, tumors and, strokes.
Particle emission tomography (PET)
A PET scan may be used to record the progress of a brain condition, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. A moderate radioactive tracer is inserted into the bloodstream during a PET scan to expose a specific function in the brain.
Make it easy, take it easy
While research into Alzheimer’s and dementia continues, and as treatment and care practices are reviewed, shared and sometimes improved, there are tips you can use to help cope with the changes in memory and thinking, while also preparing you for the future. The National Institute on Aging suggests:
Organizing your days – Write down to-do lists, appointments and events in a notebook or calendar. Some people have an area, such as an entryway table or bench, where they store important items they need each day.
Paying bills – Setting up automated payments is an easy way to pay your bills correctly and on time without having to write checks. Talk with your utility providers, insurance companies and mortgage company or leasing office about automatic bill payment. Also consider asking someone you trust to help you pay bills. That person could review your financial statements and ask you about anything unusual.
Shopping for meals – Many stores offer grocery delivery services. You can also order fresh or frozen meals online or by phone. Meals on Wheels America (1-888-998-6325) can deliver free or low-cost meals to your home, too, and this service sometimes includes a short visit and safety check. Other possible sources of meals include houses of worship and senior centers. If you make your own meals at home, consider easy-to-prepare items, such as foods that you can heat in the microwave.
Taking medications – Several products can help you manage medications. You can try a weekly pillbox, a pillbox with reminders (like an alarm) or a medication dispenser. You can buy these items at a local drugstore or online. You may need someone to help you set these up. Or try an electronic reminder system, such as an alarm you set on your phone or computer.
Getting around – If you drive, you may become confused, get lost, or need increasing help with directions. Talk with your doctor about these changes. Take seriously family and friends who express concerns about your driving. Some people decide to give up driving and learn how to use public transportation. For non-drivers, other forms of transportation may be available in your area, or you might want to consider a car or ride-sharing service.
Taking it easy doesn’t mean to drop exercise from your daily routine; it means find exercise where you can! Being physically active, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and spending time with family and friends offer proven benefits and may also help slow the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Here are some more ideas from the National Institute on Aging:
Exercise – You don’t have to join a gym or spend a lot of money. Even light housework, gardening, and walking around the neighborhood can have benefits. Experts recommend both aerobic exercise (such as walking) and strength training (such as lifting weights). Learn more about exercise and physical activity.
Eat right – A healthy diet is proven to influence heart health, which relates to brain health. Learn more about healthy eating.
Sleep well – Lack of sleep and poor-quality sleep are linked to memory problems. Try to get 7 to 8 hours per night.
Be mindful – One way to help manage stress and reduce anxiety and depression is a technique called mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of what’s happening in the present, both inside and outside of your body.
Stay social – People with dementia who live alone do not manage daily activities as well when they feel lonely. Join a support group, chat with someone regularly, or volunteer at a local school or community organization. For example, you could read to children at the library.
About the Authors
Dr. Christopher Zambakari, BS, MBA, MIS, LP.D.
Dr. Zambakari is the owner and operator of Desert Haven Home Care in Phoenix and Apollo Assisted Living in Glendale. He provides direction and oversight to ensure Care Facilities provide the highest levels of customized care, administered by respectful licensed medical and caregiving professionals.
Nathalia Zambakari, Board Certified AGACNP-BC
Nathalia is a board-certified Acute Care Nurse Practitioner and a licensed medical professional responsible for short-term care patients suffering from severe conditions. As part of our care team, Nathalia reviews the medical records of incoming residents, helping us to manage patient regimens and performing caregiver education to assure that we are providing the best care possible for our residents.
The material presented on this blog does not constitute medical advice. We encourage you to consult your primary care physician (PCP). The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always consult your personal physician for specific medical advice. If you or your loved one is considering the benefits of quality assisted living, please contact us at 602-670-9326, or email us at email@example.com.