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The Medical Minute: How to support people with dementia

Many older Americans worry about their risk for developing some form of dementia, and with good reason. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, someone in the United States develops some form of dementia every 65 seconds. Dementia most commonly affects people age 65 and older. Even worse, right now, there is no cure.

“None of the major types of dementia have established therapies that change the course of the disease,” said Dr. Charles Duffy, a neurologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “But there are therapies that impact how people with dementia can continue to function well and lead good lives.”

Most people with dementia will need assistance from family members, friends and community members. That help takes different forms, depending upon where an older person is in his or her personal dementia journey. To provide optimal support, people should take these steps to educate themselves.

Learn more about dementia

Dementia is a syndrome marked by a decline of cognitive skills, such as memory and thinking. While some people use the terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s disease” interchangeably, they are different. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, contributing to approximately 70% of all dementia cases, according to the World Health Organization. “There are many different types and subtypes of both dementia and of Alzheimer’s disease,” Duffy said.

Know the symptoms

Possible signs of dementia may include forgetting names and words, becoming more easily distracted, struggling to stay organized or keep tasks straight, or failing to remember how to get to familiar places.

Those signs don’t necessarily mean someone has dementia, however. “Some of these, to a lesser degree, are also normal signs of brain aging after age 50,” Duffy said. The only way to know for sure is to see a physician and get a memory test. But convincing someone to get that test is the hard part: only 16% of seniors receive regular cognitive assessments, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“When supporting someone with dementia, people will have many such tough conversations,” Duffy said. “I encourage people to be polite, respectful, generous and kind in all interactions. Doing so will help to reassure a loved one that you are in this with him or her.”

Learn how to be supportive

When caring for a loved one with a dementia diagnosis, family members can help by providing emotional support. They also should encourage their loved ones to follow their treatment plan. That may include medications that attempt to slow the breakdown of certain brain chemicals related to memory. It also may include adapting healthy behaviors such as regular exercise, healthy eating, adequate rest and self-care. “We focus treatment on helping people maintain their independence so they can enjoy the activities they value most in their lives,” Duffy said.

Ongoing research may bring new hope to people with dementia. Duffy is currently conducting a study to identify healthy and unhealthy brain activity in people with dementia and how each might affect the progression of the disease.

Until researchers find a cure, support remains the best medicine because it helps people with dementia make sense of the unknown. As Duffy said, “Helping someone with dementia understand what is happening and what they can expect down the road is doing a great service.”

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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