May 13

Alzheimer’s: Is it or isn’t it?


The ‘A’ word is a very scary topic for most people. Learning you may have it can be even more frightening. The question most people really have is: Is it Alzheimer’s or is it just aging? Understanding the difference in what normal aging is and what constitutes as Dementia is important to decipher. Dr. Mitchell Heflin with Duke Medicine recently spoke on this topic.

When speaking about aging, a common phrase I hear quite often is, “dementia is a part of the normal aging process.” Well, that’s just not true! While memory loss may be a part of normal aging, the extent that dementia goes to is not. When a person ages, they do lose some memory functioning. Some of the normal memory loss includes forgetting a name or a place- but remembering it again in a relatively short period of time. Dementia on the other hand, does not allow for that recall process at any point.

Looking at the physical brain to determine if the person has typical aging memory loss or dementia of some kind can be a good visual indicator. The brain tells a lot about a persons’ health. As a people age, their brain mass shrinks. (Yes this is normal!) What is not normal is plaque on the brain.  It is believed that if we could just get rid of the plaque, then it would cure everything. As Dr. Heflin says, “Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy!” Plaque on the brain blocks the neuro-pathways from being able to complete their path and send a message.

A positron emission tomograph (PET) scan, is a scan that can be done to see the activity in the brain. A normal PET scan would show a lot of oranges, reds and bright colors in the brain. These colors show that there is constant activity and motion in the neurons. A person with mild cognitive impairment may have some dark blue or black spots in the center of the brain. These spots indicate that some of the brain is no longer functioning at its highest level of ability if at all. If there are a lot of dark blue or black spots on the brain, there is visual evidence of dementia.

Dementia is not a typical disease that comes in one form only. Dementia actually comes in many forms. Three of the most common forms are listed below:

  • Vascular Dementia (VaD) is the most common form of Dementia. VaD appears most commonly after a stroke; because the brain is one of the highest blood flowing organs in the human body, a blockage or a stroke can quickly affect the brains functional ability.
  • Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) is a dementia that affects the frontal lobes of the brain- located behind your forehead and right behind your ears. FTD affects the Behavioral Control Center of the brain leaving a person unable of processing emotions, feelings, or follow through with planning or create judgments.
  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB) is a type of dementia that leads to a decline in thinking, reasoning, and independent functioning. People with DLB may have visual hallucations as part of their process. It is very common for those with DLB to have Parkinson like symptoms as the disease progresses.

When someone is diagnosed with dementia of any kind, it is important to realize that dementia does not only affect the person diagnosed, but rather the whole family. Dr. Heflin, along with many other professionals in the aging industry understands that dementia is a whole family disease. Family and friends are affected as much if not more than the person diagnosed. It happens more times than not that family members get frustrated and angry with the affected person for not answering quickly enough or correctly. Working with the person diagnosed takes quite a bit of time and understanding. While family and friends are trying to help, it is crucial to keep in mind that the person diagnosed, no matter what stage they may be at, cannot control their thought processing.

You may be asking, what comes next? Learning about the processes of Dementia is and can be daunting. It is important to begin planning for future needs, and learning of possible resources available. Speaking to a Care Manager can help to create this action plan and help to locate and gather the appropriate resources. Utilizing a care manager can also help to alleviate any family stress and reduce tension among all involved. It would also be beneficial to locate a support group to attend. Visit or for lists of local support groups across the state of North Carolina. These support groups range in topics, audience and attendance. Find the best fit for your needs in a group.

For more information about this topic or other age related concerns, please contact me at 919-909-2645 or


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