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Published on: February 9, 2009
by Jeffrey Kurz for My Record Journal:
Though he’s about to turn 87 and has health troubles of his own, Olegario Traverso is determined to continue taking care of his wife, who for at least the past five years has suffered from dementia. For the most part, Traverso shoulders the responsibility of her care on his own, but he knows it’s time to seek help when she shows signs of an infection.
“Every time I suspect she has an infection I call the doctor and she prescribes antibiotics,” said Traverso, a Meriden resident.
The connection between dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s disease, and urinary tract infections is not as widely understood as it probably should be, said Dr. Rajesh Tampi, director of psychiatry for Masonicare. The link between dementia and urinary tract infections was made nearly 20 years ago, and while general awareness is improving, “it should be better,” said Tampi.
“Information should be spreading faster, but it’s not caught up that much.”
Lack of attention to hygiene, which those with dementia can be susceptible to, is a more obvious link to the risk for infection. But, particularly in older people, the symptoms of a urinary tract infection can often be misidentified as a sign of dementia, said Tampi. A significant difference between the two is that confusion brought on by an infection will come about much more quickly than the confusion resulting from dementia, a much more slowly progressing affliction.
“There are very few dementias that are rapidly progressing,” said Tampi. “Nobody gets dementia in three days to a week.”
Bacteria infecting the urinary tract also seep into the blood stream. Blood vessel walls weaken as people age, and vessels in the brain become more permeable, thus the link between an infection and increased confusion. So if an older person is displaying signs of confusion, it isn’t necessarily connected to dementia. Other conditions that can lead to a more sudden onset of confusion in the elderly include strokes, pneumonia and a change in medications.
Tampi said 25 percent of the patients admitted to the psychiatric unit at the Masonicare Health Center have urinary tract infections. Older women are at higher risk, he said. It’s important that older patients receive a complete medical work up to help identify the causes of problems, he said. There are those who assume that the loss of cognitive skills, including memory, is a natural consequence of aging, but this is not the case, said Tampi.
“Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’ll get forgetful,” he said.
Because there is no “silver bullet,” as Tampi put it, to cure or treat dementia, it’s important to emphasize prevention. The risk factors for heart disease and stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and diabetes, are also risk factors for dementia. The use-it-or-lose-it approach also applies to the brain.
While it’s important at any age to use your brain in an active way, it’s particularly a good idea for older people. That means challenging the brain with puzzles like Sudoku, or by learning a new language or learning how the play an instrument. It doesn’t always have to be ambitious, either. Trying to memorize a grocery list can also help keep the brain sharp.
“Do things to keep your brain actively engaged in creating new neural pathways,” said Dr. Karen Prestwood, a Masonicare geriatrician. “New brain cells can form no matter what your age.”
“Some say it takes longer for older people to learn, but they can learn,” said Prestwood. Remaining active socially also turns out to be a way of keeping dementia at bay.
“We’re social beings, so there’s something about that that decreases your risk of Alzheimer’s,” said Prestwood, who also recommends relaxation techniques and other stress-reducing approaches.
Picture source: Huffington Post
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