What to Know but Not Forget About Dementia

CASE: One of your patients brings in her mother who she reports is having increasing forgetfulness. She is 82 years old, with longstanding hypertension and heart disease. No history of stroke. The forgetfulness was starting to be noticed in her late 60’s and has progressed gradually since then.

Does this patient have dementia? The Alzheimer’s Association recommends looking for the ten warning signs of dementia that include:

  • Memory loss that affects daily living or work
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems with language
  • Disorientation in time and space
  • Poor or decreased judgement
  • Problems with abstract thinking
  • Misplacing things
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Changes in personality
  • Loss of initiative

Dementia is very common, affecting up to 50% in patients over 85 years of age, and 10% in patients 65 years. As we all age, our memories decline. However, primary care physicians should be alert to patients who are experiencing memory loss without other signs of cognitive impairment.  This is defined as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Unfortunately up to 81% of patients who meet the criteria for dementia never receive a documented diagnosis. Up to 25% of patients with MCI progress to full dementia each year, and should be evaluated and managed.

Key diagnostic studies include a CBC, serum glucose, serum electrolytes with BUN and creatinine, serum B12 levels, liver function tests, thyroid screening with TSH and depression screening. The latter is crucial as many patients with depression present with mild cognitive impairment. At the present time, there is little evidence to screen for syphilis (unless specific risk factors exist), doing EEGs, APOE genotyping, MR or CT scans or SPECT scanning. Use of PET scans or genetic screening for Tau mutations are controversial.

If cognitive impairment exists, consider use of cholinesterase inhibitors or vitamin E in patients with mild to moderate dementia. Diagnose and treat depression and psychosis as appropriate. Many patients with dementia develop functional or behavioral problems. Consider the following:

  • Behavioral modifications (scheduled toileting)
  • Music especially during meals and bathing
  • Walking or light exercise
  • Pet therapy (yes with animals, not electrons)
  • Cognitive exercise

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