MONTVILLE, NJ – We’ve all walked into a room and forgotten why, but when changes in thinking and memory start to interfere with daily life, it may be a larger problem. This was the message behind Laura Hawkins of Alzheimer’s New Jersey’s seminar at the Montville Township Public Library on Jan. 11.

Hawkins described dementia as significant impairment to memory, language and other brain functions.

“Patients have no idea what to do with a pen, for example, or they might have problems with the symbolism of smelling smoke – that it represents the danger of fire,” she said. “We see a lot of safety issues with dementia.”

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Patients can have problems with self management, such as balancing their checkbook or grocery shopping, and they can lose control over their emotions, she said.

There are several different diseases that cause dementia, but Alzheimer’s is the number one cause, Hawkins said. Knowing which type your loved one has can help choose the proper medication.

“Alzheimer’s is diagnosed by exclusion,” Hawkins said. “There’s no single test that will diagnose it.”

Instead, physicians will review medical history, lab work, and order brain imaging, among other tests.

“We need to remember, though, that this is a brain disease – it’s brain damage,” said Hawkins. “It’s easy sometimes for us to forget. Our loved one may not look that sick. They sound like themselves. But their mood, behavior and personality have changed. Sometimes it can feel like, ‘If I didn’t know better I might think they’re doing this to drive me crazy,’ but it’s the disease at work.”

Hawkins said patients can live anywhere from 2 to 20 years with Alzheimer’s, but the average is 8 to 10.

But just because patients are showing signs of dementia doesn’t necessarily mean they have it. Dehydration, depression, and even urinary tract infections can all masquerade as dementia, Hawkins said.

Early stages of the disease are subtle, and include difficulty navigating familiar places, memory loss for recent events, and personality changes, according to Hawkins. Middle stage patients may lose their judgment on how to dress appropriately for the weather, experience more significant changes in their personality and behavior, and repeat themselves a lot, she said.

“Sometimes the patient is aware of it, and sometimes they’re not,” Hawkins said.

Late-stage patients pass away when automatic functions like breathing and swallowing are no longer automatic due to brain damage to that region, Hawkins said. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, she said.

Risk factors for the disease include age, family history, and lifestyle, according to Hawkins, but factors can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

“Soap operas don’t count, but learning TV like Jeopardy is fine,” Hawkins said. “Keep your mind active. Get out and socialize! Connect with other people!”

Hawkins also recommended a Mediterranean diet and physical activity.

“But there’s no cure, or way to prevent, Alzheimer’s,” she warned. “But we’re working on it.”

There are more than 100 clinical studies running at this time, according to Hawkins, “but they take time, and many don’t realize that Alzheimer’s is terminal.”

For those who have a loved one with dementia, Hawkins recommended planning for the future by assigning power of attorney and becoming familiar with the services that are available. She also recommended becoming educated about the disease.

“Safety is a real issue, because 60% of patients will wander,” she said.

She also recommended that caregivers not take the changes in behavior personally, and take care of themselves with rest, exercise and respite care.

Alzheimer’s New Jersey has a full schedule of seminars to educate the public about the disease itself, how to visit patients with the disease, how to cope with caregiver stress, and healthy aging tips. They also offer respite care programs and clinical trial connections. Their website is Alzheimer’s New Jersey and their phone number is 888-280-6055.