NPR: Dementia & Depression Not A Certainty In The Elderly

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by Karen Keller Capuciati

I was lucky to catch an interesting interview on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show on Thursday, July 7th.  The discussion topic was mental health issues among seniors.  The link is available, so you can listen to the interview itself or read the transcripts.  And for those who can’t devote 51 minutes to the entire interview, we’ve compiled and paraphrased the tips here that we consider most helpful.

  • Dementia is NOT a normal part of aging.  It’s true that we may process things slower as we age, but it’s NOT true that we should expect our memory to fail.  For example, we may have trouble with recall from time to time, but we should eventually remember.
  • Depression is also NOT a normal part of the aging process, but it is relatively common.  Interestingly, depression symptoms can present differently in older adults.  Instead of, say, seeking a therapist, older people may just express their depression with vague health complaints.  It’s important to consider the possibility of depression before a full medical work-up is undertaken.
  • Since many older adults are taking so many different drugs, medication side effects should be scrutinized as potential causes of many symptoms.  Certain prescription drugs, for instance, and even some over-the-counter medications (like sleep aids), can be the source of impairment with memory and concentration.  Our mom, for example, was on 15 medications at one time.  Many of the medications warned: “may cause dizziness” but when Mom sought medical help for the dizziness, her doctors just prescribed more medications!
  • Not all memory lapses indicate Alzheimer’s disease and can sometimes be treated when the trouble stems from injury or medications or illness.
  • Anxiety disorders are often overlooked and can go undetected throughout a person’s life.  In old age, these untreated disorders can have debilitating consequences.
  • The most important ways to keep the brain healthy is to get physical exercise (forcing blood to the brain) and eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.  Brain exercises, like crossword puzzles, are okay but relatively modest in their benefit.  There is simply no substitute for physical exercise.
  • Anecdotal evidence from a nurse who helps many dementia patients suggests that strong social support for a person with dementia, as well as for his or her family, goes a long way in helping the patient.  The nurse went so far as to suggest that social support — meaning interaction with friends and family on a significant daily level — was far more effective than some of the popularly prescribed medications for the same condition.


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