The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Is it Dementia? Part 1: Natural Aging

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Is It Really Dementia?

“I feel like I have dementia!” This is a caregiver’s lament we hear often. And not only caregivers. We are seniors, living around seniors, and it’s not unusual to hear someone in their 70’s or older complain about their failing memory. Rose told me, “I can’t remember her name, but I will. I’ll wake up in the morning and tell Jack.” Jack nodded. “Yeah, she wakes me up to tell me!”

What we seniors are really concerned about is MCI*, not dementia. We know we don’t have “dementia.” We know it isn’t that severe. But we do get concerned that maybe, just maybe, we are headed that way. That what we are experiencing has passed from normal aging into MCI, the stage between normal aging and dementia. MCI can be defined as a decline in cognitive function greater than expected by normal aging but not great enough to significantly impact daily functioning.” It can involve problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment that are greater than normal age-related changes.

So when does it stop being “normal aging” and become MCI? Just like there’s no clear line between MCI and dementia, there really isn’t one between normal aging and MCI. It’s all on the same scale with normal aging at one end, MCI in the middle and dementia at the other end. But let’s give it a try: With normal aging:
  • Rose’s inability to remember a name, but remembering it later is a prime example. Forgetting about the person entirely would be sliding into MCI.
  • Thinking is slower than it once was. It will likely take longer to make up your grocery list, or make plans or decisions. With MCI, thinking becomes even slower. You can still make decisions and plans if the choices are limited and you can take your time.
  • You can still learn new things, given the time to do so. With MCI, it usually isn’t worth the effort, if you can do so at all.
  • You’ve begun to appreciate how routines and things that stay the same make your life easier. With MCI, these things become so important that without them, you flounder and become anxious.
  • Your visuospatial abilities tend to weaken. That is you have to use more care when you walk because you misjudge just where that stone is—or you reach for the table to steady yourself and miss it by an inch or so. MCI might be where you lift a glass of water to your mouth and it goes to your ear.
  • You forget more easily.

The above Teepa Snow video talks about the difference between the forgetfulness of normal aging and that of dementia. She says that a person can remember about eight things at a time, but that as we age, that number decreases to about three. When it goes lower, then MCI is showing up.

With normal aging:
  • You can go back in time. If you got sidetracked and forgot what you were doing, you can replay recent events and trigger the memory. If you lose something, you can think back to where you last had it and start looking for it there. A person with MCI has begun to live more in the here and now, and is losing the ability to go back in time. The thought or item is likely just gone.
  • You may misplace or forget things, but a person with MCI can begin to forget whole events. This is the here and now issue again. The deeper into MCI and dementia a person gets, the less they may be able to remember events in the recent past.
  • Your ability to reason doesn’t change. It may take you longer to figure things out, and to make decisions or plans, but you are as rational as you ever were. A person with MCI-LB* may begin to use delusional thinking to make things like a lost purse more understandable to them. They may think they saw someone “steal” a purse they can’t find.
  • Your vocabulary doesn’t change. You may not be able to think of a word, but when you do—and you usually will eventually, you know as much as you ever did about what it means and how to use it in a sentence. With MCI, your vocabulary begins to become more basic.
Next week, the blog will be about the differences between dementia and delirium.

* Acronyms:
LBD: Lewy body dementia
PlwD: person living with dementia
PlwLBD: person living with LBD
BPSD: behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia
MCI: mild cognitive impairment
MCI-LB: the form of MCI that precedes LBD

For information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia

Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.

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