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Don’t delay early diagnosis of dementia
Elaine Bamford and Ed Youngblood
Special to the Chronicle

As behaviors change in the one we love with the onset of dementia, we are often tempted to look for excuses. Denial creeps up on us, and instead of addressing the problem we make changes and accommodations at home to keep the peace. Keeping life as “normal” as possible is your goal. You suspect there might be something wrong, but you keep telling yourself, “It’s not that bad,” or “This is just normal aging.”

Eventually, you notice it’s not just memory loss, but there are other problems, such mood swings, difficulty with routine functions, and what seems like unprovoked anger. You realize you are taking on more and more responsibilities to spare him from those embarrassing calls from businesses who say the check was not written properly or payment is overdue.

Finally you realize you are waking up exhausted from the emotional weight you are carrying, and a lot of that is from stubbornly avoiding the thing you don’t want to know ... that your loved one has Alzheimer’s or some other neurological problem that causes dementia.

Like all diseases, with Alzheimer’s early diagnosis is very important. Denial, procrastination and avoidance only put off what we need to know. While a diagnosis of dementia can be devastating news, an explanation of what the problem is and what can be done about it may help reduce some of the worry caused by uncertainty. And this is important, because if your loved one has dementia, there are going to be many decisions to make for which you will need a clear head and a clean conscience.

But, there is an even better reason for early diagnosis, which is that the problem might NOT be dementia! At our current state of medical knowledge, neurological dementia is not reversible, but there are other medical conditions that cause dementia-like symptoms that CAN be corrected, and sometimes quite easily.

Some examples are urinary tract infection, thyroid imbalance or the side effects of medications. Before we conclude that the problem is true dementia, these other non-neurological causes must be ruled out. Think of the relief you and your loved one will experience if early diagnosis reveals that it is NOT dementia.

The diagnostic process first involves a relatively simple memory test. These are offered free of charge by research firms, such as Meridien Research located in Brooksville, and Compass Research in the Villages. Administered by trained practitioners, these screenings can tell you whether you should seek more rigorous testing.

In most cases, general practitioners do not have the time to conduct adequate screening and testing leading to a diagnosis. They should refer you to a psychiatrist or neurologist who will do blood work and administer an MRI or possibly even a PET scan. These specialists are better qualified to confirm whether you have dementia, what type it may be, and how far it has advanced.

There are scores of neurological diseases that result in dementia, and the type may determine the kinds of medicine that are administered. Medication cannot delay or reverse dementia, but it can moderate behaviors and contribute temporarily to less conflict and a better quality of life.

If a diagnosis confirms dementia, it is still important to know as early as possible. As a caregiver, you have a learning process ahead
of you. You will need to learn as much as possible about dementia and its predictable process in order to make proper decisions about care.

Eventually, you will probably need professional help, and there are many options which you should understand and be prepared to choose. You will need to get legal documents, such as a Durable Power of Attorney, in place so you can make the many decisions that will be required on behalf of your loved one.

Early diagnosis may not change the prognosis, but it can give you time to prepare yourself for the many areas of responsibility you will face. Experienced dementia practitioners can attest that this is a disease that can easily overtake you and your family. Quite often, the decisions you have to make should have been made many months or even years ago.

The first of these decisions is diagnosis, even before you suspect the worst. Don’t let denial or procrastination cause delay that may adversely affect your ability to make subsequent decisions on a timely basis. Early diagnosis is the first step in making this difficult disease a bit easier for you and your loved one.
Posted on 17 Mar 2017

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