Teach Me

Is Your Loved One’s Health Problem Dementia or Something Else?

Just about everybody has a favorite Bruce Willis movie, whether it’s a blockbuster like “Die Hard” or “Pulp Fiction” or a cult classic like “Hudson Hawk.” Last year, the popular actor retired. He gave up his career due to a type of dementia he has, and while family members had known something was wrong for a long time, they mistook his symptoms for hearing loss. 

That’s an easy mistake to make. “Cognitive changes can be due to dementia, but they can also be due to mood fluctuations, poor sleep, an undiagnosed medical condition like sleep apnea, vitamin deficiencies, abnormal hormone levels, medication interactions, uncontrolled diabetes, hearing or vision problems or normal aging,” said Michelle James, PsyD, a neuropsychologist with Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. 

What is dementia?

Dementia is a brain disorder that affects your memory, thinking and behavior. It worsens over time. People with dementia often have memory loss, confusion, language difficulties, mood or personality changes and impaired judgment. But dementia isn’t the only health condition that causes these types of symptoms. For example:

  • Memory loss could be attributed to stress or normal aging.
  • Language difficulties could be caused by general communication problems or stress.
  • Mood or personality changes could be a part of depression or anxiety.
  • Coordination or movement issues could be attributed to arthritis or aging.
  • Struggles with planning could be associated with long-standing patterns of being absent-minded or disorganized.
  • Hearing loss could lead to communication problems and mask early signs of problems with thinking.

Early screening for dementia is crucial

If you notice any warning signs of dementia in yourself or your loved one, it is important to consider other causes. But even if symptoms are mild, screening for dementia is also important. 

With screening, whether the problem is dementia or something else, you can get help. And even though dementia is not curable, you can put strategies and treatments in place to help slow its pace and manage its effects on day-to-day life. 

“With early diagnosis, there are medications that can help stabilize these changes,” Dr. James said. “You can also learn how to compensate for some of your issues, so they don’t affect your daily life as much.”

You can also connect with support services, get educated, explore resources you might need down the road and consider taking part in clinical trials.

Start with an open and honest conversation with your health care provider about what you’ve noticed. Sharing any concerns about memory, cognitive function, mood changes or other symptoms is crucial. Having someone go to the appointment with the person who has symptoms is helpful as it allows both people to share their thoughts and observations.

Even if you’re not noticing symptoms, cognitive screening is now part of annual Medicare wellness checks. It’s important to have these yearly exams to watch for any changes. “If changes are detected, you can be referred to a specialist sooner rather than later,” Dr. James said.

Screening tests for dementia

If your doctor recommends additional screening for dementia, tests such as the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) and the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) can help evaluate cognitive abilities. 

The MMSE takes five to 10 minutes and uses 11 questions to evaluate:

  • Knowing where you are and knowing the date, month and time of year
  • Attention and concentration
  • Short-term recall
  • Language skills
  • Recognizing objects
  • Understanding and following instructions

The MoCA takes about ten minutes and uses 30 questions to evaluate:

  • Short-term memory
  • Recognizing objects
  • Executive functioning
  • Attention, concentration and working memory
  • Language
  • Knowing where you are and knowing the date, month and time of year

Keeping your brain strong

You can make lifestyle changes to keep your brain as healthy as possible. These steps may also help reduce the risk of developing dementia in people who don’t have it:

  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Engage in mentally stimulating activities
  • Maintain strong social connections
  • Get regular, restorative sleep

The link between hearing loss and dementia

Willis’ family blamed his unresponsiveness on “Hollywood hearing loss.” They thought that filming loud movies like “Die Hard” damaged his ears. Even if you or your loved one weren’t exposed to a lot of loud noises, hearing loss can still be a part of normal aging. 

“Hearing loss can make cognitive difficulties worse since your brain isn’t getting as much input,” Dr. James said. With hearing loss, your brain doesn’t get as much stimulation, and you don’t interact as much with others. This can put you at higher risk for dementia.

“It’s a good idea to get your hearing evaluated because it’s hard to tell if your hearing is getting worse on your own,” Dr. James said. Some causes of hearing loss, like impacted ear wax, are reversible. But if you have irreversible hearing loss, hearing aids can help you hear better and keep you and your brain engaged.

The bottom line

A lot of the symptoms of dementia are also signs of other health conditions, so it can be hard to figure out the cause. Early screening is crucial if you’re worried about any problems with thinking, concentration or memory in yourself or a loved one. That way, you can take steps to get the care and treatment you need. 

If you would like to connect with a health care professional who can help you evaluate any symptoms you’re concerned about, reach out to Banner Health.

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