Alzheimers Disease and other Cognitive Disorders

Introduction to Cognitive Disorders

Alzheimers Disease and other Cognitive Disorders

"Cognition" is a fancy word that mental health professionals use to describe the wide range of brain-based behaviors that we rely on every day. Cognition encompasses lots of different skills, including perception (taking in information from our sensory organs), memory, learning, judgment, abstract reasoning (thinking about things that aren't directly in front of us), problem solving, using language, and planning.

We take many of these cognitive skills for granted as we go about our routine activities. For instance, eating breakfast in the morning is a relatively complex task that involves multiple steps. First, we need to be aware of (health care professionals call this "oriented to") the time, and realize that it is appropriate to have an early meal. Next, we need to decide what to eat, which involves generating different meal choices and making a selection. Then, we need to follow the correct steps in order to prepare the meal. Even something simple like a bowl of oatmeal...More

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What are cognitive disorders?

  • "Cognition" describes the wide range of brain-based behaviors that we rely on every day.
  • Cognition includes lots of different skills, including perception (taking in information from our sensory organs), memory, learning, judgment, abstract reasoning (thinking about things that aren't directly in front of us), problem-solving, using language, and planning.
  • Damage to any part of the brain can cause a cognitive disorder.

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What are the causes of a cognitive disorder?

  • Cognitive disorders can be caused by all sorts of brain problems, including tumors, strokes, closed-head injuries, infections, exposure to neurotoxins (i.e., substances that are toxic to the brain), genetic factors, and disease.
  • The specific type of cognitive disorder someone develops depends on the part of the brain that is affected.
  • For instance, a tumor that grows in the brain's speech centers will result in problems with communication. Similarly, an infection in the brain's motor centers will cause problems with movement.

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Can cognitive disorders be cured?

  • Professionals classify cognitive disorders into two broad categories: those that are irreversible, or not curable, and those that are reversible or curable.
  • Dementias are irreversible, progressive, degenerative disorders that gradually reduce a person's ability to function in everyday life.
  • A person with dementia cannot regain his or her previous level of functioning, even though some symptoms may be managed through treatment.
  • Examples of this type include Alzheimer's Disease, Lewy Body Dementia, and Dementia caused by the AIDS/HIV virus.
  • Examples of reversible cognitive disorders are pseudodementia and delirium.

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What is Dementia?

  • Many people mistakenly use dementia as a synonym for Alzheimer\'s Disease.
  • "Dementia" is an umbrella-like term that refers to any brain syndrome that causes multiple cognitive deficits without specifying the cause for the symptoms.
  • A person with dementia can experience all sorts of problems, including: 1) Impaired Memory (especially the ability to remember recent events and newly learned facts) 2) Impaired Language Skills (decreased ability to communicate to others and understand what is being communicated) 3) Impaired Orientation (not knowing who one is, where one is, and/or what time it is) 4) Impaired Judgment (the ability to make decisions regarding personal, interpersonal, financial, and/or medical affairs) 5) Impaired Executive Functioning (the ability to plan and carry out daily tasks and make decisions).
  • Dementia can be caused by one medical condition or by multiple medical problems. Most dementias are caused by one of the following: 1) Alzheimer's Disease, which accounts for 50-70% of all dementia cases 2) Vascular Disease, which accounts for 15-20% of all dementia cases and includes strokes (disruptions in the blood supply to the brain) and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs, or mini strokes) and 3) Lewy Body Disease, which accounts for up to 20% of all dementia cases.

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What is Alzheimer's Disease?

  • Alzheimer's Disease is the most frequent cause of dementia and is not a normal part of aging or "just what happens when we get old."
  • There are several differences between normal aging and Alzheimer's Disease:
    • Forgetfulness - People aging normally might forget part of an experience (I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday). People with Alzheimer's Disease will forget the entire experience (I can't remember yesterday morning at all).
    • Remembering - People aging normally may forget something (such as a movie recommendation for a friend), but they will eventually recall the desired information (e.g., later in the evening or the next day). People with Alzheimer's will not recall the information at a later time.
    • Comprehension - People aging normally can usually follow verbal or written instructions with no problem (e.g., filling out a sweepstakes entry or following a recipe). People with Alzheimer's Disease become less and less able to follow instructions (or multiple step directions) as the disease progresses.
    • Memory Aids - People aging normally will usually benefit from using notes and other reminders (e.g., a grocery list). People with Alzheimer's gradually become less able to benefit from memory aids (e.g., they will forget that they have a list, or forget how to use the list).
    • Self-Care - People aging normally may be stiff or have some aches and pains, but they can still complete personal care tasks (e.g., bathing, dressing, styling hair, going to the bathroom, etc.). People with Alzheimer's lose the ability to perform these kinds of tasks because they cannot remember the steps involved, and eventually, they won't remember when these tasks are appropriate.
  • According to a 2008 national study, 9.7% of individuals age 71 and over in the United States - or 2.4 million people - have the disorder.
  • When you include people of all ages, over 5 million individuals in the United States currently have Alzheimer's Disease.
  • The risk of developing AD increases dramatically with age; almost 50% of individuals over 85 are coping with this disorder.
  • Estimates suggest that if a cure or an effective prevention strategy for Alzheimer's is not found by the year 2050, anywhere between 11 and 16 million people age 65 and older will be affected.

For more information on Alzheimer's Diease
For more information on causes
For more information on diagnostic criteria
For more information on warning signs
For more information on how it is diagnosed
For more information on how it is treated

Can Dementia and Other Cognitive Disorders be prevented?

  • There is no "vaccine" against dementia, nor is there a guarantee that the prevention methods will work for everyone.
  • Healthy lifestyle choices regarding diet, nutrition, exercise, and intellectual and social activity can reduce the risk of developing dementia and other cognitive disorders.
  • Research suggests that the risk can be lowered by adopting a "brain-healthy" diet that avoids saturated fat and cholesterol and includes dark-skinned fruits and vegetables, cold-water fish, and other foods that contain Omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Cardiovascular exercise that strengthens the pumping force of your heart, such as swimming, walking, running, and cycling, and resistance training that strengthens muscles, such as weight lifting and sit-ups are the best types of exercise for brain health.
  • Excellent ways to stay mentally active include reading; writing; doing crossword puzzles or other kinds of games; attending classes, lectures, and plays; and taking up new hobbies.
  • Research suggests that social activities which combine physical and mental activity are the most effective at preventing dementia. For instance, walking with a friend while talking about a topic that requires problem solving is better than just walking, just visiting a friend, or just problem solving while alone.
  • Great ways to stay socially active include being involved in work or volunteer activities, joining clubs, and traveling, particularly in organized travel groups.

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What coping skills can someone with dementia use?

  • If you have recently been diagnosed with dementia, it is normal to experience a wide range of emotions, such as denial, anger, fear, loneliness, frustration, loss, and/or depression.
  • Take care of your physical health through nutrition, exercise, and adequate rest.
  • Schedule regular medical check-ups with a professional who has expertise in dementia and related conditions.
  • Be sure to take medications as prescribed, and return to the doctor before making any changes to your medications on your own.
  • Avoid using alcohol as a coping mechanism because it could interact with medications or cause additional health or cognitive problems.
  • Consider keeping a journal to write down, express, and work through your feelings.
  • Find an early-stage dementia support group where you can connect with others who have been diagnosed and learn more about the disease.
  • Seek mental health treatment if you are depressed and coping strategies are not helping.
  • Keep the lines of communication open with family and friends.
  • Continue participating in your favorite and regular activities as long as you can, and as long as you still enjoy them.
  • Perform difficult tasks at times of the day when you feel your best and most alert.
  • Keep a written schedule handy to keep track of appointments, tasks, and medication schedules.
  • Make sure your belongings are organized in such a way that things are easy to find.
  • Remember that a diagnosis of dementia does not mean that life is over. It means that there will be challenges ahead, and thinking about those challenges now will better prepare your whole family for them and benefit all of you in the long run.

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What coping skills can a caregiver of someone with dementia use?

  • Dementia poses significant changes and sources of stress for those who care for a person with the diagnosis.
  • Learn as much as you can about the disease as soon as possible. You will be better prepared to handle the variety of challenges associated with dementia if you know what to expect and have some ideas about how other people have handled similar challenges.
  • Adjust your expectations by imagining what your loved one is going through.
  • Attend to your own physical and mental health because you cannot help someone else without helping yourself first.
  • Keep the lines of communication open with family and friends.
  • Make sure that legal and financial issues are in order, and include your loved one in the decision-making process as much as possible.
  • Take an active role in your loved one's health care.
  • Plan activities with your loved one that you both enjoy and that can be adapted to the person's current level of functioning.
  • Monitor yourself for signs of caregiver burnout, such as anger, anxiety, irritability, or depression.
  • To prevent or address caregiver burnout, try joining a caregiver support group, which can provide education, emotional support, and connections to local resources that can help you meet your caregiving responsibilities.
  • If self-coping methods are not working, seek mental health care from a professional who has expertise in addressing caregiver burnout, depression, and grief.

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News Articles

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