A recent study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggests delays in diagnosing dementia can put seniors, and others, at risk. We checked in with Rosemary Laird, MD, who specialized in geriatrics and internal medicine at FloridaHospital, to get her thoughts on the topic.
The study says that people who show signs of dementia but have not yet been diagnosed are actually twice as likely as patients who have been diagnosed to be doing everyday tasks like driving and cooking that can potentially be harmful.
So it’s important to get the diagnosis as soon as you spot the signs. “In early-stage illness, some patients can continue employment, driving, independent volunteer activities or community involvement,” says Dr. Laird. “As the disease progresses, the patient will need supervision and then assistance for the various functional tasks we all do in day to day life.”
“Typically there’s a loss first among the more complex tasks such as driving, financial management and decision making, shopping and meal preparation,” she adds. “At some point in the middle stages there’s usually sufficient loss of ability to manage complex matters and/or judgment lapses such that incapacity for personal decision making occurs. Later personal care activities become dependent including medication management, bathing, dressing, eating and eventually ambulating.”
“The first hurdle is to understand when an elder is displaying changes in his or her abilities that goes beyond the changes in ability that nearly anyone living into their 80s and beyond has,” she explains. “Those individuals are at greatest risk of making a mistake as a result of the intellectual change of dementia. In addition to the incidents mentioned in the research, in my practice I have had patients who first come to attention after making errors with medications, getting lost while driving, failing to file taxes properly or starting a fire in the kitchen.”
“Patients or families who notice change should bring it to the attention of the primary care physician and request an evaluation,” she says. “Some PCPs will complete the evaluation themselves, while others will refer to specialists including geriatricians, neurologists, and psychiatrists.”
Sometimes, patients will be fully aware of the changes and will be agreeable to medical evaluation. Others will not be as cooperative. For families facing this challenge your doctor may have advice. There is also an Alzheimer’s Association hotline you may call at 1.800.272.3900.