Parents and dementia: Getting the right diagnosis and treatment

July 16, 2014 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn
Accurately diagnosing dementia can involve working with several different medical specialists.

As adults age, it can become more common to forget simple things. When the memory loss is severe enough to interfere with daily living, however, this can be a sign of more progressive forms of dementia. To ensure that your parents get the care they need, it is important to have them see a physician who has experience and expertise making a differential diagnosis, that is, determining what specific type or subtype of dementia is causing your parents’ cognitive problems.

Dementia is not a single disease. It is actually a category of symptoms that can impact memory, judgment, language, and motor skills. These symptoms are triggered by brain diseases and disorders like Alzheimer’s and other illnesses. Collectively, dementia is quite prevalent among aging people. Overall, about one-third of individuals aged 65 years and older develop at least one form of dementia by the time they die. Many types of dementia cannot be cured, but there are ways to manage symptoms. An accurate diagnosis is the first step.

Diagnosing dementia types and subtypes

The impact of dementia on cognitive abilities goes beyond simply forgetting a word in conversation. Such lapses in memory are usually temporary, and memories simply need more time to surface. Beyond the occasional forgotten word, people with dementia may not remember how to cook a particular meal, balance a checkbook, put on warm clothing for cold weather or find their way home after an outing. They may also become irritable and less engaged in everyday life.

When these types of problems impact everyday life, you should arrange for your parent to see a physician who has experience diagnosing dementia for an assessment. The physician can begin the process of determining whether he or she has one of several types of dementia, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases
  • Vascular dementia
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Although an accurate diagnosis is essential to proper treatment, there is no one test that can diagnose dementia. Instead, doctors need to review several aspects of your parent’s health. The doctor may ask for a complete medical history, laboratory tests and information on changes in everyday function, such as alterations in personality or unusual patterns of thinking. Even when dementia is diagnosed, it can still be difficult to identify the type of dementia affecting a parent or loved one.

Planning and treatment for dementia

Your parents may need to see a number of different doctors, including neurologists, neuropsychologists and gerontologists before he or she is accurately diagnosed. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, your parents’ physician will develop a personalized treatment plan, answer your questions about the disease and its course of progression and help you find the support services you and your parents need to manage living with dementia.

Every parent is different and will need a tailored treatment and care plan. The M.D.’s, N.D.’s and Ph.D’s who create your parents’ plan will consider a range of therapies for a comprehensive treatment plan that may include medications, dietary changes and non-pharmaceutical approaches. Additionally, health advisors will know if your mother or father is able to participate in any ongoing clinical research trials around the U.S. that are evaluating new therapies for dementia.

It is important to remember that dementia gets progressively worse, and your parents’ needs will evolve and grow more complex with time. The health advisors and providers you work with can help you anticipate these needs and direct you to the right resources that will help lessen the impact this disease has on you, your parents and the whole family.