Senior Brain Health: Information for patients & family members

July 23rd, 2019

We compiled this information to help you or a loved one understand more about cognitive and mental health.

Cognitive Disorders
What you may not know about these aspects of brain health.

Dementia is a term for deterioration of thinking and memory, while Alzheimer’s Disease is one of the better-known forms. Vascular problems and the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury may also lead to dementia. Changes in the brain may start a long time before symptoms occur.

“Cognitive decline that is more than normal aging is tough to pick up on at first,” admits Marian Schuda, medical director of the OhioHealth John J. Gerlach Center for Senior Health in Columbus.  “The earliest significant signs include failure to properly pay bills or manage money, as well as driving issues – either getting lost in previously familiar areas or routes, or unexplained scratches or dents.” You may also detect mild memory loss or the inability to respond to what’s going on around us.

When we notice dementia symptoms, we should schedule a doctor’s appointment to assess the situation and determine whether it’s a brain health issue or something else. Your doctor may perform tests to distinguish between dementia and other processes that can produce symptoms resembling dementia.

A complete review of all your medications is also important to make sure symptoms aren’t side effects of drugs or the result of a drug interaction. For instance, medications like benzodiazepenes (commonly prescribed for anxiety or insomnia) and diuretics (often used to treat high blood pressure and glaucoma) can lead to slow or confused thinking, especially in older people.

“Don’t accept that confusion or memory lapses are simply a normal part of aging,” notes retired ER physician Ben Hippen of Decorah, IA. “If a family member seems to be showing signs of cognitive difficulties, contact their primary care provider for an evaluation.”

Learn more about cognitive conditions at the National Institute on Aging dementia information page and Alzheimer’s Foundation Fact Sheet.

Mental Health Tips & Insights
Practical advice for better mental health.

Isolation is a major mental health challenge for many older adults. Research from Brigham Young University suggests that isolation can potentially shorten life span by up to the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes day, and increases mortality risk by at least 25%. It can also be a contributing factor for depression and substance abuse.

Depression is very common and very treatable. One of the biggest misconceptions about mental health and aging, says John Dornheim, board president of NAMI Texas, is that adults are depressed because that’s what it’s like to age. “We don’t have a depressing old age if we plan ahead – have hobbies, friends of several generations, eat well, drink in moderation, and keep up with the world,” he says. Yet many of us do feel down because of loss – of friends, mobility or independence. Symptoms of depression include less enjoyment of favorite activities, increased sadness, loss of hope, sleep interruptions, and eating disorders. If any of these symptoms lasts for more than 10 days, call the doctor. Learn more about depression in older adults.

Substance abuse and addiction are also prevalent. People who live alone or feel disconnected from family and friends may turn to alcohol, marijuana or other substances to reduce their emotional pain, Dornheim says. In other cases, adults may be in significant pain and over-use opioids and other prescription drugs, which frequently leads to addiction. Controlled substances may also keep medications from working properly, or cause dangerous drug interactions, which puts physical health at risk.

Staying engaged is crucial. Prevent isolation by volunteering, participating in special interest groups, making recurring plans with friends and family, using technology like video chats to stay in touch, and checking in with someone on a regular basis. These activities can help ward off depression and loneliness, feelings that can complicate medical conditions. Being able to access a web of support helps us feel connected, improve our outlook and be better able to cope with adversity.

Learning resilience helps us thrive. The ability to respond to and recover from adversity is important throughout our lives, and especially as we age and experience life changes and loss. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.” We become more resilient when we accept that change is part of life, try to be more flexible, develop a positive self-image, and take action on issues rather than withdrawing or assigning blame.

We don’t have to live with sadness and other negative feelings as we age. Live better. Get the help you deserve.

Don’t disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking it, because of what you read here. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. Always consult a healthcare provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a healthcare condition.