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Dementia? Or normal aging? Breaking down the role memory loss plays in getting older

 Dr. Suhayl Nasr, medical director of psychiatry, Beacon Health System
Dr. Suhayl Nasr, medical director of psychiatry, Beacon Health System (WNDU)
Published: Oct. 27, 2016 at 5:10 PM EDT
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Every year, 7.7 million people are diagnosed with it worldwide and still, there is no cure.

The physical, psychological and social burdens paired with the group of symptoms are devastating, both to victims and their families.

We are talking about dementia and cases are escalating rapidly. As baby boomers age, experts predict this trend will continue to increase.

But where is the line drawn between dementia and normal aging?

First, let's break things down.

Sixty to 80 percent of dementia cases are caused by Alzheimer's disease. It's the disease we most commonly attribute to memory loss.

But that's not all. Various other diseases, like vascular disorders can impair memory and thinking too. This leads to the deterioration of the brain to the point that it interferes with your everyday life.

Finally, other conditions like thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies can also contribute to dementia symptoms.

Myth or fact? Serious mental decline, including memory loss, is a normal part of getting older.

That would be a myth.

"We may slow down, we may forget an occasional appointment, we may lose our car keys, but dementia is different. Memory loss does not become part of normal aging," said Keryl Conkright, RN, Care Services Team Leader, Cass County Council on Aging. "Dementia is a group of symptoms caused by a disease process."

It is not a disease.

"Dementia symptoms interrupt the thinking process. It interrupts the normal activities of daily living," said Conkright.

Memory, language, judgment, perception, abstraction, reasoning, attention and organization can all be impacted.

"I'm forgetting appointments, I can't balance my checkbook, I got lost driving, and perhaps the person isn't the one that sees it, but family does," said Conkright.

In South Bend, Dr. Suhayl Nasr is Beacon Health System's medical director of psychiatry. He specializes in geriatrics.

"For the patients, at first, when they’re aware their mind is slipping, it’s very scary, very depressing, very isolating," said Nasr.

Dr. Nasr says the toll it takes on family members and caregivers can sometimes be the most difficult part.

"The bigger problem is for the family that sees the body is still there but the mind is not there," said Nasr.

With dementia, the mind is steadily deteriorating.

"There are plaques and tangles that form from a protein substance that collects in the brain. It weaves its nasty web and causes those plaques and tangles which make interruption in the nerve pathway," said Conkright.

"At the University of Pittsburgh they developed a compound that is like an anti-body that attaches to the protein, the amyloid protein, which is deposited in high quantity in patients with dementia," said Nasr.

By injecting this compound, Dr. Nasr says it attaches to amyloid proteins in the brain.

"You can see on the left hand side here, all the red spots, a lot of amyloid deposits in the brain, as compared to a normal brain, which doesn’t have any deposit to speak of," said Nasr.

This successfully measures the progression of the disease.

"Let's say I have someone in my family who developed Alzheimer's at the age of 55…I'm worried, I'm 40, am I going to be demented in 10 years? If I go and get this test done and it shows I have more amyloid plaques than average. I’d say, let me work very hard at controlling all the factors I can," said Nasr.

Included in the attached video is an image from the University of Pittsburgh comparing brain tissue. The normal brain sits at the left of the screen, whereas the brain with dementia is on the right-hand side.

"The areas where we know memory is very well focused, in the hippocampus, it is very…look at how this area is very shrunk, very small," said Nasr.

This deterioration leads to memory loss, in turn creating physical, psychological and social burdens to victims and their families.

"They don’t know what they’re dealing with. They might think you’re they’re wife, as opposed to their daughter. Or you’re their mother, when their mother had died," said Nasr.

"Some people display anger, and if I'm angry with you and push you away far enough you'll leave me alone and I won't have to admit to you that I'm confused

Confusion that Nurse Conkright says is always on the perimeter.

"People didn't get up and buy this ticket to this ball game," said Conkright.

"But for the majority of people, even as they get older, they don’t have to develop dementia," said Nasr.

Dr. Nasr says there are ways to work very early on in life to help prevent the onset of dementia.

Friday evening on NewsCenter 16, Dr. Nasr and Nurse Conkright will delve into the things you can do now to catch signs of dementia and work to prevent future symptoms.

Experts predict that as baby boomers age, cases of dementia will continue to rise; however Friday, we'll offer an interactive quiz, where you can test yourself or a family member in the comfort of your own home. This may give you peace of mind moving forward, or the encouragement you need to speak with a doctor.

To watch part two of "Dementia? Or normal aging?" tune into WNDU Friday evening 'Just before 6.'