I’m not a medical doctor but I hear so many older adults say things like “I can’t find my keys, am I getting Alzheimer’s?” or “My sunglasses were right on my head!  I hope I’m not losing it.”  I feel the record needs to be set straight. Cognitive illnesses are a growing concern for older Americans. The increasing number of delirium and dementia cases among elders have advanced the general public’s awareness of these issues. That’s great but don’t let it confuse you into thinking you and everyone around you has a problem (After reading below if you are legitimately concerned you should get the opinion of a medical professional right away).

Forgetfulness comes with age and you may now have a harder time remembering. But when you get tested for dementia they are not exactly checking to see how forgetful you are. Can you draw an analog clock showing it is 2:35? Will you know how much change you’d receive paying for a $1.95 pack of gum with a $5? Can you name 12 different animals? As you can see, these questions have nothing to do with how often you misplace your keys. John Hopkins Medicine tells us that doctors consider both your short and long-term memory loss AND one or more of the following:

  • aphasia – language problems
  • apraxia – organizational problems
  • agnosia – unable to recognize objects or tell their purpose
  • disturbed executive function – personality and inhibition

Dementia is a progressive decline in memory and at least one other cognitive area (attention, orientation, judgment, abstract thinking and personality). Types of dementia all involve structural damage to the brain. Dementia is rare in under 50 years of age and the incidence increases with age; 8% in >65 and 30% in >85 years of age. Alzheimer’s Disease is a type of dementia.

Delirium is an acute disorder of attention, memory and perception and is preventable and treatable.  It is typically of short duration but severe, and is believed to either disrupt brain metabolism or brain chemistry, both of which can significantly affect brain functioning. The diagnosis is unfortunately missed in more than 50% of cases.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is a condition involving problems with memory or another mental function (for example language) severe enough to be noticeable but not serious enough to interfere with daily life. This can progress to dementia and the risk of progression to dementia is elevated for people with stroke, depression and a high burden of other medical conditions.

If you want to do more to help, the Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s is happening in the next few months all around the country. I know I’ll be walking to increase knowledgeable awareness about dementia and delirium and to raise money to help find a cure (or even just a better understanding) of these heart-wrenching diseases.

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