Tips for combating the various forms of dementia
Dementia affects tens of thousands of Connecticut families. Vivian Argento, MD, sheds light on dementia and how patients and families can combat the disease.
Still largely shrouded in mystery, recent developments in the study of dementia are arming physicians like Vivian Argento, MD, with new tools to offer patients and caregivers as they fight the disease.
With the number of people living with dementia expected to more than double in the next 30 years, Dr. Argento, a geriatrician with Northeast Medical Group Center for Geriatrics, said it is important to address common misconceptions about the disease.
“Dementia itself means a progressive, cognitive decline,” Dr. Argento said. “It’s a progressive change in the ability to think. Dementia prevents you from doing what you need to do like drive your car, balance your checkbook, go grocery shopping and plan your meals. With dementia, you are not able to get through normal, daily activities.”
The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer's Association estimates 5.8 million people are suffering from it in the United States with 78,000 of them in Connecticut.
Dr. Argento clarified that, “All Alzheimer’s is dementia but not all dementia is Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s impacts memory, particularly short-term memory and can progress for up to 10 years.”
She explained that as the disease advances, people often become disoriented. “They don’t forget where they put their car keys, they forget how to use their car keys,” Dr. Argento said. “Alzheimer’s tends to predominantly impact memory and your ability to orient yourself in time. A patient may not know what the date is, the month or year. This is distinct from other types of dementia that may present more with problems with language abilities or behavioral disturbances.”
While the root cause of dementia remains unknown, doctors believe that the disease is the result of nerve cells in the brain dying because of localized inflammation.
“What we see in something like Alzheimer’s is a buildup in the brain of a protein called amyloid,” Dr. Argento said. “That amyloid turns into these big clumps in the brain that over time, create inflammation. The inflammation causes nerve cell death. These proteins are deposited in the brain, which then causes local inflammation that leads to cell death.”
Exercising the brain and the body
Dementia is tricky to treat, with medications unable to provide noticeable relief. However, patients and their families can turn to various activities for help. They will not stop the disease, but studies show they can be effective at slowing its progression.
“These activities are related to environmental adjustments and lifestyle modifications,” she said. “Staying socially active is very important for dementia patients. There’s something about the complexity of interacting with other people that keeps the brain stimulated. Just like we have to exercise our bodies, we need to exercise our brain, and social interaction does that the best.”
Other suggestions for exercising the brain include crossword puzzles, word searches or Sudoku.
Physical exercise is also good for both treatment and prevention because it keeps blood flowing to the brain.
“Many senior centers offer classes like tai-chi, yoga and Zumba for seniors,” Dr. Argento said. “Participants need to follow complex movement patterns, which exercise the brain, and they’re moving their muscles which gets the blood flowing. They also benefit from the socialization of being in a group. I encourage my patients, telling them that they’re getting a two-for-one deal.”
Doctors recommend engaging in moderate exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Walking, swimming and slow biking are great examples.
Tools for caregivers
An area of dementia treatment that sometimes goes overlooked is the role of family caregivers. Given that they have the most contact with the patient, they are critical members of the care team.
“Family caregivers have a number of tools they can use in terms of managing dementia symptoms,” Dr. Argento said. “One is to keep the environment safe and structured. Having a regular, consistent routine helps the patient get through the day because they know what’s coming next.”
Early diagnosis plays a strong role in helping caregivers learn how to navigate the effects of the disease. People with early signs of dementia and their caregivers should discuss how to put the person’s affairs in order, including advanced care planning and naming a healthcare representative.
Because early diagnosis is such an important factor in the effectiveness of treatment, Dr. Argento advises people to speak with their physician as soon as possible.
“If the thought, ‘This may be dementia,’ crosses your mind, then you should talk to your doctor,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that if you’re worried about it, then you should ask the question. You also may want to consult with someone who specializes in memory loss disorders such as a neurologist, psychologist or geriatrician.”
If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be displaying symptoms of dementia, you can learn more about our programs and find a doctor in the Aging (Geriatrics) section of NortheastMedicalGroup.org.
The complex needs of older patients experiencing dementia symptoms require a team of health care professionals with expertise in the field of aging. Our team works together to assess the patient's physical and mental wellbeing and to coordinate care in a variety of settings across the continuum.
Learn more about our Alzheimer’s and memory disorders services