Does timing matter when treating dementia?

Published: by Interim HealthCare in Alzheimer's, Senior Care

Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia can become debilitating conditions. Memory loss, confusion and reduced speech capabilities limit seniors' independence and make it harder for them to connect to the people around them. The condition doesn't immediately start out that way, however. Dementia evolves in stages, and researchers are exploring the efficacy of treatments at varying phases of the condition.

Much of this research indicates that patients respond better to early interventions that take place in the beginning stages of dementia. Now, a new study conducted by Bristol's School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience found that early-stage therapies can not only be more effective at treating the patient, but they may also improve the success of treatments applied later on in the disease's progression.

How early intervention impacts dementia

While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, several treatments can be used to help slow its progression so seniors maintain better health and independence for longer. But as Dr. Gary Small, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles explained, starting medical intervention early will yield the best benefits.

"It's going to be easier to protect a healthy brain rather than trying to repair damage once it becomes extensive," he told KING News.

Daily medications can help improve cognitive functions and maintain good health for a longer period of time. An early diagnosis also makes it easier for doctors to track the development of dementia to alter treatments as necessary. Patients and care givers can then better prepare for the next stages of the condition as well.

The exact cause of dementia remains unknown, but studies have uncovered information about brain cell death caused by plaques that suffocate neurons in dementia patients. This leads to communication breakdowns among key parts of the brain, which then impacts memory, speech and other cognitive functions. 

The Bristol School study found that in lab tests on rodents, synapse abnormalities were present leading up to their eventual die offs as dementia progressed. The researchers concluded that by developing treatments that target these weakening synapses before they die, neurons could better respond to other treatments that target later-stage dementia.

"As well as improving our understanding of how synapses are affected in dementia, these interesting findings will help inform future research into drugs that could help keep nerve cells healthy for longer," said Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK.

Detecting dementia early

Early treatment is key, but it can be difficult to time it correctly. One of the biggest hurdles when dealing with cases of dementia is that symptoms don't become especially prevalent until the disease has progressed to middle or late stages. By then, treatment options are limited. The effects of dementia can not be reversed, especially once major brain cells start dying in key parts of the brain, so treatments at this stage are also less effective. The best they can do is try to maintain current cognitive levels, which means patients with late diagnoses are already impacted by declining brain function.

That's why it's key for doctors and home care givers to stay on the lookout for the earliest warning signs of dementia in seniors. According to the Alzheimer's Association, these early signs include:

Disruptive memory loss. While occasionally forgetting names or dates can happen to anyone, most people can easily jog their memory and recall the information they were missing. In early stages of Alzheimer's, lost memories are not restored as easily. Seniors may start to forget information they recently learned and will need to repeatedly ask for help recalling the same details over and over.

Struggling to do things they normally do. Seniors with dementia may face new difficulties completing tasks they used to be able to do on their own, like following directions on a familiar route or recalling how to complete daily tasks.

Personality changes. Dementia often makes patients more irritable, anxious or depressed.

If care givers begin to notice these signs in their elderly loved ones, they should schedule a doctor's appointment immediately. The British Medical Journal stated that primary care physicians are usually the first expert patients approach for suspected dementia, and as such, will have tools to help identify the condition and begin appropriate treatment plans.

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