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Dementia or pandemic brain?

By Sherrie Voss Matthews

It has been months of minimal interaction for many of us. With so few events to engage our brains, we are all feeling a bit foggy, and having a difficult time remembering things.

This can be especially true of older adults, who have been homebound and isolated. Interacting with others, going places and doing things can be critical to keeping an aging mind sharp and fending off depression.

When are we experiencing routine forgetfulness brought on by social isolation? And when are we noticing the early warning signs of a dementia?

“The isolation of the past year has affected us all. Pandemic brain might easily be confused with dementia symptoms, but we can watch for early signs of dementia in loved ones,” says Meghan Leibas, Nurse Educator with University Health’s Center for Clinical Excellence.

What is dementia?

“Dementia is more than just forgetting things,” Leibas says. Dementia is an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other cognitive skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and makes up 60-80% of vascular dementia cases. However Alzheimer’s is far from the only type of dementia. Dementia is also not limited to memory issues, causing changes in communication skills, focus, reasoning, judgment and visual perception as well.

What are early signs and stages?

You might start to wonder: are constantly forgetting details and dates, not remembering where we left our glasses, or repeating stories early signs of dementia?

“Forgetting where your keys or glasses are may be a normal sign of aging or our brains fogging from little interaction during the pandemic,” Leibas says. Larger dementia signs are forgetting things that affect day-to-day life.

Signs of dementia include:

  • Forgetting a child’s name
  • Trouble with familiar tasks, like making family recipes or balancing a checkbook
  • Trouble driving to familiar locations
  • Difficulty developing a plan or solving a problem
  • Calling familiar things by the wrong name
  • Putting things in unusual locations, like finding car keys in the freezer
  • Withdrawing from hobbies, social events or sports
  • Asking for the same information over and over
  • Having trouble following a conversation
  • Not recognizing familiar places

Is there a good dementia test?

Early detection matters. Evaluating a loved one allows you to plan for the future and discover that their memory problem isn’t dementia, but a treatable condition. For example, side effects from certain medications can cause memory issues and lifestyle changes.

“You can find many resources on the Alzheimer’s Association’s website, including the Is this Dementia quiz,” Leibas says. It’s a good starting point for family members to use to see if the signs they see are just normal aging, dementia or Alzheimer’s.

You should work with your loved one’s primary care physician to have an evaluation completed. If it is normal age-related memory loss, there are lifestyle changes that can be made to strengthen memory skills.

If they are symptoms of dementia, early intervention can slow the progression of the disease. Early diagnosis allows for early treatment, which can reduce symptoms and slow the disease’s progression, according Daily Caring, a website devoted to those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

If you start noticing unusual behavior in yourself or a loved one, it may be time to reach out to your doctor. Early diagnosis allows you and your loved one to make decisions about future care, finances and end-of-life choices.

Additional resources about Alzheimer’s and dementia:

The neuroscience specialists at University Health diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions including dementia, Alzheimer’s and other memory conditions.

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