Paula Spencer Scott
Motor memory, aka “muscle memory,” can preserve ingrained abilities (ride a bike, tie a shoe) and through repetition, aid the ability to pick up new ones (painting, dancing, trying new exercises). Dementia doesn’t shut down every thinking skill involved in learning.
Myth: People with dementia lose the ability to enjoy themselves
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Graff-Radford says. Very few patients are diagnosed so late that there isn’t plenty of their same pre-diagnosis life ahead.
“We always ask patients, ‘What are the things that bring you joy?’ It’s critical to try to enjoy usual activities, realizing you may need to make modifications,” says Graff-Radford. A gardener may need to use photos to help remember plantings or a bridge player could have someone else keep score, while finding the same pleasure in the activity.
“I’d say dementia teaches you to enjoy life,” adds Montgomery. “All the filters, the things I was afraid of, are removed when you focus on the present moment.”
Myth: To diagnose Alzheimer’s, get ‘the Alzheimer’s test’
There’s no single diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s — not yet. (No, those brief cognitive screens that ask you to draw a clock can’t tell you if you have dementia.)
At Mayo, as elsewhere, doctors evaluate possible dementia by considering symptoms, medical history and relatives’ perceptions. Mayo staffers also perform several kinds of neurological tests to check cognitive functions, and typically use blood tests and brain imaging to rule out other causes.
“There have been a lot of breakthroughs recently in terms of tests to measure the toxic proteins that build up in the brain through PET scans and spinal fluid, or now plasma as well,” Graff-Radford says. Given that Alzheimer’s starts in the brain 15 or more years before symptoms appear, these biomarker tests may one day identify disease much earlier.
Myth: Dementia makes people more violent
Aggression is far from universal. “Everyone’s journey is very different, with symptoms that depend on them as individuals, on the setting they’re in and on the anatomy of the disease,” Graff-Radford says.
As “Mike,” a 52-year-old Mayo patient quoted in the book, says, “Please remember that dementia is a disease, not a personality trait.”
Myth: Nothing can be done about it — so why find out?
The sooner a diagnosis is made, the more opportunity for treatment, Graff-Radford says.
Current therapies, including medications, can’t reverse symptoms but may slow progression. Coexisting conditions that may make dementia worse, from vitamin deficiencies to sleep apnea, can be treated.
While cognitive changes are still mild, a person can also plan for how and where they’d like to live as symptoms progress. Many of Graff-Radford’s patients choose to emphasize relationships and cultivating a sense of life purpose, he adds.
Far from being an exercise in futility, finding out the cause for concerning symptoms is “empowering,” Graff-Radford says. “Having dementia is just one part of who I am. It does not define me,” says “Dale,” another Mayo patient. “I can enjoy today and what I have now.”
Paula Spencer Scott is the author of more than a dozen books, including Surviving Alzheimer’s: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers, a series of interactive journals and health/family guides with doctors at Harvard, UCLA and Duke. Her latest is When Your Aging Parent Needs Help (January, 2021) with geriatrician Leslie Kernisan. A longtime journalist and former Woman’s Day columnist, she’s also an Alzheimer’s and caregiving educator.
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