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April 30, 2024


Understanding Dementia: Signs, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

There are millions of people living with dementia across the United States today. More specifically, over 6 million people have Alzheimer's Disease, the most common form of dementia. In our home state of WA, where Rippl delivers services to a multitude of people including GenCare residents, there are more than 120,000 people with dementia. The prevalence of dementia is increasing, and it's likely that one of your family members or friends will develop a type of dementia. Despite this, dementia has historically been difficult or even taboo to talk about. Rippl aims to change that through education of our communities and supporting patients and their families as they navigate their dementia journey.

What is Dementia?

Dementia itself is not a specific disease. It's a term used to represent a group of conditions, just like heart disease represents a group of heart-related conditions. People with dementia experience abnormal brain changes that affect their ability to function normally in their everyday life. These changes can manifest as cognitive issues such as memory loss, word-finding difficulties, disorganized thinking, personality changes, and trouble solving problems.

Early Signs of Dementia

The most common symptom associated with dementia is memory loss. However, we can all recall a time when we misplaced our keys or walked into a room and forgot why we were there. This doesn't necessarily mean dementia.

So, how do you distinguish normal forgetfulness from something more serious?

Normal Memory Changes vs. Dementia

Memory changes are a natural part of aging. Just like you can't run as fast today as you did at 20, a slight decline in memory doesn't necessarily impact your daily activities (brushing your teeth, managing finances, grocery shopping, cooking). Normal forgetfulness might involve difficulty learning new things or struggling to remember someone's name occasionally. However, the changes seen in people living with dementia make it difficult to maintain day-to-day tasks. Here's the key difference: changes associated with dementia begin to significantly impact your daily life.

Here are some other possible signs of dementia:

  • Difficulty Performing Familiar Tasks: Examples include trouble preparing meals, paying bills, or managing medications.
  • Disorientation: Losing track of time and dates, including important dates like holidays and birthdays. Getting lost while driving a familiar route is another sign of disorientation.
  • Communication Problems: Difficulty finding the right words or frequently forgetting people's names. Do family members find themselves automatically filling in words for you?
  • Personality Changes: This might look like increased agitation, anxiety, depression, or out-of-character angry outbursts.
  • Apathy and Withdrawal: Lack of interest in normal activities and hobbies you once enjoyed.
  • Impaired Judgment: Changes in judgment or decision-making, such as handling money irresponsibly, can be early signs of cognitive decline.

What to Do if You Notice Early Signs

If you or a loved one experiences any signs of cognitive changes (like those listed above) or have other concerns, it's crucial to reach out to your primary care provider for further evaluation. Many causes can explain these signs and symptoms, ranging from depression to Alzheimer's disease to thyroid issues. During the evaluation, your provider will ask detailed questions, complete screening questionnaires, and may request blood work. Special cognitive tests can also be performed to help determine if cognitive impairment is present.

If your provider doesn't find any other explanations for your symptoms and believes you might have cognitive impairment or dementia, that's where Rippl can step in and support you and your family on the next steps of your journey.

Why Early Detection and Diagnosis Matter

Early intervention in the disease's progression can make a significant difference:

  • Medical Advantages: Early treatment can ensure optimal medical management and help manage potential symptoms.
  • Access to Support: Resources and support provided to people with dementia and their caregivers can improve outcomes and quality of life.
  • Lifestyle Changes: Knowledge is power. Studies show that incorporating lifestyle changes like increased physical activity and social engagement can benefit brain health.

A diagnosis can feel overwhelming, but it's important to remember there's still a lot of life to live. Our aim at Rippl is to ease the transition for patients, families, and caregivers as they navigate the world of dementia. There is no cure for any type of dementia, and they are progressive diseases, meaning they will worsen over time. However, medications can manage symptoms, and promising new treatments aim to slow the disease's progression, especially with early diagnosis.

Rippl offers access to medical evaluations with our nurse practitioners and counseling for patients and families through our social workers. We have a dedicated team, including care navigators who go above and beyond to find resources to support you, from in-home services to exercise classes.  Our team is here to provide support, education, and help plan your journey so that you may live your life to the fullest.

- By our partners at Rippl - Marybeth Wheeler, Nurse Practitioner-Dementia Care Specialist & Rippl Changemaker

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