Dementia: Advantages of Seeking an Early Diagnosis
The early symptoms of dementia are much like what most people consider a normal part of “aging.” These include symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, disorientation, inability to do normal activities, withdrawal, restlessness, and frustration. Many patients faced with such problems do not consult a doctor, thinking: “It must be normal at my age. I will look stupid if I go to a doctor with these problems.
On the other hand, when people who experience dementia experience such symptoms, they suspect (or fear) that they have dementia. However, they are reluctant to see a doctor because of the stigma attached to being diagnosed with dementia. In some cultures, people may associate “dementia” with strange behavior, helplessness, and negativity, and they don’t want to be labeled as dementia patients. In other cultures, where awareness of dementia is low, the diagnosis of dementia is stigmatized because people associate dementia with insanity. People are also hesitant to get a diagnosis because they’ve heard that dementia has no cure, so they see no point in “wasting” time and money going to a doctor.
There are, however, several advantages to seeing a doctor for investigation and diagnosis as soon as symptoms are noticed. These benefits are described below.
Not all memory loss is dementia
There are several types of memory loss. Plus, everyone forgets things from time to time. Some memory problems are typical of aging, while others could indicate a serious underlying medical condition. Often seniors worry about their forgetfulness and this worry and stress makes them more inattentive and increases their forgetfulness.
By talking to a doctor, people dealing with memory loss can get a proper assessment of their problem, its possible causes, and its treatment. Doctors can determine if the patient’s memory problem indicates cognitive decline, and if this decline is mild (called mild cognitive impairment) or has crossed the threshold beyond which it indicates a diagnosis of dementia. Also, some causes of memory loss can be treated.
Sometimes depression is mistaken for dementia
Depression can reduce attention span and cause memory problems. Laypersons cannot distinguish whether their memory loss and confusion are caused by dementia or depression. Depression responds well to treatment and symptoms may reverse. Getting a timely diagnosis is therefore helpful.
Dementia symptoms are also caused by treatable conditions like vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism, etc.
Many people believe that the symptoms of dementia are caused solely by incurable medical conditions (such as Alzheimer’s disease). In fact, there are over seventy causes of dementia symptoms. Some of them, like vitamin B12 deficiency or hypothyroidism, can be treated, and such treatment will reverse the symptoms of dementia.
A good diagnosis detects reversible causes which can then be corrected. If a patient does not go to the doctor, he continues to suffer unnecessarily.
Knowing we have mild cognitive impairment affects our life choices
People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) may or may not develop dementia, but the likelihood of developing dementia is higher than in people without MCI.
If a doctor, while checking on a patient, concludes that the patient has an MCI, this impacts the decisions the patient can make. For example, although there is no known way to prevent dementia, research suggests that healthy lifestyle choices reduce the risk. The patient may therefore decide to be more attentive to diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices. For example, a person can start an exercise program, become socially active, and quit smoking.
Knowing that they have an MCI can also affect the decisions the person makes about their future.
Early diagnosis means treatment can begin sooner and years of suffering can reduce
Currently, dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease are irreversible, but some drugs aim to improve the patient’s quality of life by reducing symptoms.
Although these medications do not work for everyone, a patient who receives an early diagnosis may try the medication sooner and may experience some symptom relief and thus lead a better life.
Early diagnosis gives patients more time to plan their dementia
In an early diagnosis, the patient is still mentally alert enough to understand the disease and its possible impacts. Although it takes time to come to terms with the diagnosis, the patient has the mental capacity to understand the impact of dementia and begin to prepare for the years to come.
Early diagnosis allows patients to discuss their wishes with loved ones, organize their finances, conclude projects and generally plan their future. Patients can also talk to friends and relatives, explain the situation and ask for help. Knowing that their problems are caused by an organic brain disorder reduces their bewilderment and worry, and allows them to focus on what they can still do and direct their lives to make the most of what they have. They can seek advice and learn more about their condition.
In the case of a diagnosis at an intermediate or late stage, the patient is likely to find the diagnosis more overwhelming, and cannot believe or understand it, let alone plan for the future.
Early diagnosis gives family and friends more time to plan care
A person with dementia needs care, and that care increases as the dementia gets worse. Family caregivers must adapt their lives accordingly; adjustments could include changing jobs, moving house, arranging finances, discussing division of labor and responsibilities among family members, etc. Family members also have more time to understand dementia and learn the necessary care skills, join support groups, get advice, etc. The earlier the diagnosis, the easier it is for them to support the person with dementia.
Late diagnosis means more suffering for the patient and their family
Late diagnosis means that for many years the person with dementia has faced confusion and reduced capacity without knowing why the problems are occurring. It’s stressful and upsetting, and stress makes symptoms worse. If the problem is treatable, all this suffering could have been avoided.
Late diagnosis also means that family, friends, and colleagues who interact with patients have treated the patient as someone with normal memory and abilities. They did not take into account memory loss, reduced capacity and confusion. Because of this, they (unintentionally) stressed patients with the expectation that they would understand and remember things, and make complex decisions. Family members may have shown impatience when the patient forgot things, was awkward, or behaved strangely. The patient’s frustration, rage or withdrawal can upset family members who do not understand that it is caused by dementia.
Because family members are unaware of the dementia, they take no steps to prevent the patient from self-harming or harming others. For example, the patient may continue to drive even though it is not advised, or may wander, or may leave kitchen equipment and gadgets unattended or not be vigilant enough if asked to keep a Babe.
In conclusion, a person who experiences symptoms of memory loss or functioning that interferes with normal life should see a healthcare professional to determine the cause and severity. Additionally, knowledgeable family members should ensure that an examination is performed. Perhaps the symptoms are caused by a problem that can be treated. Maybe the symptoms aren’t dementia. And even if the symptoms are caused by irreversible dementia, early diagnosis allows treatment to be started to alleviate the symptoms, and also gives the patient and their family more time to plan for the future.