Dementia is the loss of brain function which affects memory, cognitive skills, behavior and speech. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, a condition which causes a progressive decline in brain function. Other causes of dementia include degenerative brain disorders, such as Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s dementia, frontotemporal dementia and vascular dementia due to strokes.
Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias are a difficult diagnosis not only for patients, but for their friends and family as well. At Scripps, our experienced neurologists and medical teams care for people with dementia with deep knowledge, understanding and compassion.
The cause of degenerative dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease, is unknown. In Alzheimer’s disease, research indicates a buildup of abnormal collection of proteins in the brain, called amyloid plaques, may be at its root. Ongoing research is looking at this and other potential causes, such as:
- Vascular dementia as a result of stroke
- Movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
- Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Huntington’s disease and multiple sclerosis in later stages
- Alcoholic dementia
- Infections, such as HIV/AIDS and Lyme disease
- Brain cancers
Alzheimer’s risk factors include:
- Age — Age is the single biggest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s. One in 9 people over age 65 have Alzheimer’s.
- Family history — The risk of Alzheimer’s is higher in people who have a parent or sibling with early onset disease.
- Genetics — Certain inherited genes are known to be associated with Alzheimer’s. This form of the disease is known as familial Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms of this type of Alzheimer’s begin earlier than other types, usually starting in a person’s 40s or 50s. Genetic testing can determine if you carry this gene.
- Multiple head injuries
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s and related dementias include:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life, such as repeatedly asking for the same information or consistently forgetting important dates
- Challenges in planning or solving everyday problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images, distance, color and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Problems with judgment or making decisions
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality, especially seeming confused, suspicious, depressed or easily upset
Having any of these symptoms does not mean you have dementia. But if you notice these Alzheimer’s signs and symptoms, talk to a doctor. The sooner dementia is diagnosed, the sooner you and your loved ones can begin planning for care, treatment and support.
Currently, there’s no specific test to diagnose Alzheimer’s and related dementia. Screening for dementia is most often done with your primary care physician. Neurologists, geriatricians, neuropsychologists and psychiatrists are often called upon as part of the team to properly diagnose and manage patients with these disorders.
Scripps primary care and specialist physicians diagnose dementia based on a thorough medical evaluation, including:
- Medical history
- Physical and neurological exam
- Mental status and mood testing
- Blood tests and imaging exams (MRI, CT) to rule out other causes
Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, meaning it worsens over time. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are three stages of the disease, but stages and symptoms may overlap.
Scripps neurologists know that dementia affects both patients and those close to them. While there is no cure yet for Alzheimer’s, we’ll partner with you to find the right therapies to minimize symptoms and improve quality of life.
Treatments may include:
- Medications known as cholinesterase inhibitors to help lessen cognitive symptoms, such as memory loss and confusion
- Coping strategies to help manage behavioral symptoms and enhance personal comfort
- Medications to help with behavioral symptoms and sleep problems
- Referral to a clinical trial, if available and interested
In addition, we can connect you with support groups and other resources for those caring for a loved one with dementia. Especially with early-onset Alzheimer’s, it can be vital to ensure family members, finances and long-term planning are taken care of.
Scripps Health and its affiliated physicians offer treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia at the following locations in San Diego County: