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Diagnosing Dementia

Diagnosing dementia“I need another volunteer please,” Dheeraj Mahajan, M.D., says, standing before a crowd of nearly 100 people. As medical director of geriatrics at Weiss, he is speaking to community members about memory loss—specifically dementia. 

Dementia takes its most common form in Alzheimer’s disease. A progressive disorder that results in severe memory loss, Alzheimer’s accounts for 50 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. Scientists estimate that 4.5 million people have Alzheimer’s, and their care costs have climbed to $100 billion annually.

A woman raises her hand to volunteer, and Dr. Mahajan calls her to the front of the stage. He tells her to name as many animals as she can in one minute.

“Elephant, giraffe, dog, cat,” the woman says, pausing periodically to think of more. When the minute ends, she has listed 19 animals.

If she had listed any fewer than 18, “we start labeling dementia,” Dr. Mahajan tells the audience. “Fourteen and below is severe dementia.” He then asks another volunteer to list foods, and a few more volunteers to write down the names of all seven dwarves from the tale of Snow White—Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Doc, Grumpy, Happy and Bashful. The recall tests are entertaining, but they are also real tools used in diagnosing dementia.

Throughout our lives, our brains are constantly picking up on and processing new information. A memory forms when we pay attention to sensory input—a sound or a smell, for example. That input first becomes a short-term memory, and with rehearsal is eventually converted into long term. Those memories are stored in the brain’s hippocampus. As dementia develops, the hippocampus shrinks. Short-term memories are the first to go.

In the average evaluation, the doctor will ask about the person’s ability to complete daily tasks and assess cognitive function with recall tests such as Dr. Mahajan was using on the volunteers.

“Sudoku, crossword puzzles—these are things you can do constantly to keep your mind challenged,” Dr. Mahajan says. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

The WISE Senior Center—the community center within Weiss open to seniors in the area—offers many classes and support groups to help seniors stay active and healthy. Up until recently, most of those groups have focused on seniors’ physical health. They include exercise classes, balance studies and free health screenings.

“Now we’re working on programs to exercise the mind, things we can do to keep the mind sharp,” says Caren Perlmuter, vice president of development and community.

To learn more about the WISE Senior Center’s events, check out the online calendar or call (773) 564-5666.

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