Not quite dementia? red flags to watch out for

Not quite dementia?  red flags to watch out for

Nitin K Sethi, MD

Assistant Professor of Neurology

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

Weill Cornell Medical Center

New York, NY 10065

I get many patients who tell me during their office visit that they are worried they may be getting dementia. The thought of Alzheimer’s disease with its progressive neurocognitive decline and memory loss is a frightening thought indeed and patients are justifiably worried.

SO LETS GET DOWN TO THE BASICS. What are the red flags/ warning sings that you indeed do have Alzheimer’s dementia starting off?

Patients who have Alzheimer’s dementia are usually not aware that they have a memory problem. In the initial stages of the disease, social graces are maintained. These early patients may be able to hold down a job, socialize with friends and no one is aware that they have a memory problem.  Small problems may be starting off though. Losing keys, misplacing things, having problems with numbers, having problems balancing the cheque books and in counting change, forgetting names etc. As you can imagine these are not “major issues” and may not be noticed by the patient or family initially.

So usually when a patient hinself comes to me and tells me, he feels he may be getting demented, I approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism. Most of the times these patients do not have dementia, rather they may be depressed. Depression at times can lead to dementia like symptoms with loss of energy and drive and feelings of self-doubt. It is hence sometimes referred to as pseudo-dementia. You treat their depression and the patient feels much better and the memory problems resolve.

But when the patient is brought to my attention by a family member with complaints of memory problems, getting lost in the neighbourhood, change in personality, becoming indifferent to his personal appearance and grooming, apathy and lost of interest in activities previously enjoyed, in such patients the possibility of dementia crosses my mind.

One must remember that in dementias like Alzheimer’s disease (there are many different types of dementia), the problem is not just with memory. Dementias like Alzheimer’s disease affect a range of neuro-cognitive abilities. Thes patients have problems with language (we call this aphasia–there are many different kinds of aphasia), calculation, ability to sustain attention, ability of abstract thinking, of planning for the future (what I shall do next week) and in executitive functioning. They also suffer from what we call apraxias. Let me explain what apraxia is. Lets assume I can button and unbutton my shirt. Now this is a learned act, which I learned as a small child. Now suppose I get demented. Even though I am not weak (meaning the strength in my arms is intact), I forget how to button and unbutton my shirt. This loss of ability to carry out learned tasks despite intact motor/ muscle strength is called apraxia. Patients who have Alzheimer’s dementia forget how to tie their shoes laces, how to drive a car, how to eat with a spoon and so on. Hence in a way they become totally dependent on care-givers for all activities of daily living. Memory loss is just a component of a much bigger problem. Even when it comes to memory, they have problems in short term memory (what they ate for breakfast, who is the current President elect, whom did he defeat in the elections etc),  long term memory (what is your name, your wife’s name, your child’s name, where you were born, what date) may remain intact in the initial stages of the disease.

 So watch out for the red flags, not everything is dementia!!!