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Medical Intel

Jun 4, 2019

Caregivers can spot dementia in numerous ways, ranging from a loved one forgetting about their favorite television program to suddenly not remembering to pay their bills on time. Learn who Dr. Cesar Torres says is most at risk of dementia and how to manage it.



Intro: MedStar Washington Hospital Center presents Medical Intel where our healthcare team shares health and wellness insights and gives you the inside story on advances in medicine.

Host: We’re speaking with Dr. Cesar Torres, a geriatric and house-call doctor at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Torres.

Dr. Torres: Good afternoon.

Host: Today we’re discussing dementia, a neurological condition that tends to develop in older adults and is characterized by memory loss and confusion. Dr. Torres, could you start by discussing how dementia develops in the brain?

Dr. Torres: Certainly. Dementia develops as a result of the production of a neurotoxic protein called beta amyloid and, as a result of accumulation of this protein, nerve cells in certain areas start to die, specifically the memory centers of the brain - the hippocampus, the parietal lobe - and, as a result, people start to experience neurocognitive deficits. The most dramatic ones tend to be in the memory realm, but there are other cognitive deficits that also develop. And these eventually lead to significant social dysfunction and impairment, and it’s, unfortunately, very progressive.

Host: Are there any populations of people who are at increased risk for dementia?

Dr. Torres: Well, the number one risk factor for dementia is age. The older you are, the higher the prevalence. Recent estimates - generally, by the time you’re 70-75, there’s upwards of a 20 percent prevalence rate. Dementia encompasses a few different pathologies. There’s Alzheimer’s dementia, there’s Vascular dementia, there is a dementia associated with Parkinson’s, there’s a Lewy body dementia and there are some other much more esoteric subtypes. The vast majority are Alzheimer’s-type dementia, generally in the range of 60, 70 percent. After that, Vascular dementia rounds off the list, mostly around 15 to nearly 20 percent. And then, all the others. So, each one tends to have certain predispositions. For Alzheimer’s, there’s a genetic predisposition. It’s not 100 percent correlative, but there is a genetic predisposition and it can run in families. Vascular dementia tends to affect folks who have vascular disease - hypertension, coronary artery disease, people who are more prone to strokes. Brain trauma can predispose people to another subtype of dementia, and there’s a lot of focus now on this Traumatic encephalopathy that we see in a lot of professional, high-contact sports. Some of the other more esoteric subtypes - probably more of a genetic predisposition. So, as far as high-risk groups are concerned, that’s not an all inclusive list but there are certain groups that are at greater risk. But like I said, age is the number one risk factor. So, if people could stop growing old, we wouldn’t have a problem.

Host: In these high-risk individuals and these aging individuals, what are some of the warning signs of dementia that families should start watching for?

Dr. Torres: That’s a very good question and unfortunately, it’s also a very broad question. Generally, the onset of Alzheimer’s tends to be extremely subtle. You’ll tend to see problems with the acquisition of new knowledge or new information, the retention of new knowledge and new information. A family member asks how to get to a grocery store over and over again, in spite of having been there not too recently. You can see difficulty with social functioning as well, as the disease progresses. An individual who was extremely capable of managing their finances suddenly forgets to pay their bills and the electricity gets turned off. As things progress, now you can see personality changes. Sometimes the person starts to retreat into themselves - more withdrawn as some awareness of the social dysfunction starts to creep into their consciousness. Generally, the family will feel something isn’t quite right with their loved one and that’s when they actually probably bring it to the attention of their primary care physician or caregiver. The social functioning piece becomes more dramatic and is more distressing for folks, and they tend to pick up on that fairly quickly because it’s a dramatic departure from previous level of functioning.

Host: If someone notices that a loved one is showing signs of dementia, where should they turn for help?

Dr. Torres: Generally, most primary care physicians can do at least the initial screening. This generally can include blood tests, neuro imaging - in the form of a CT scan or an MRI. There are some blood tests that can also help rule out reversible causes of memory loss. But generally, the primary care physician should be the first point of contact.

Host: Are there any treatment options available to help patients with dementia manage their symptoms or reverse the condition?

Dr. Torres: Well, unfortunately, we have no way to reverse it at the current time. And that’s the Holy Grail. There have been many, many, many attempts to find drugs and various treatments but none have really been successful up to this point. As far as medications to modify the progression of the disease, there are a few, the most famous one being Donepezil, trade name Aricept and Namenda, generic Memantine. If  you make a diagnosis of dementia, you don’t automatically use the medication. It’s best to have a conversation with the patient and the family and to decide whether or not the patient has reached the stage where they would benefit from this medication because all of these medicines has toxicity. What the medicines offer, really, are slowing the progression. And, you may see unfortunately temporary improvements in certain memory functions. But, unfortunately, over time, the effect diminishes and the disease starts to progress again. If you look at it on a bell curve, most folks will fall in the middle. They will get some, but there are those who can get a lot and there are some who, unfortunately, don’t get anything. The middle is where the bulk of the patients will fall. But on an individual, case by case basis, you can get a substantial amount of improvement. The biggest benefit, I feel, from starting treatment with these medications is time. You buy time. And time is very precious for people. So, on the basis of that, if we’re at a relatively early enough stage, I think it’s a worthwhile choice.

Host: You mentioned a couple of different potential causes for dementia. What can patients do to reduce their risk of developing it?

Dr. Torres: We have looked at lots and lots of different options - herbal medications, anti-inflammatories, Vitamin E - and the list goes on. But, to date, the only two things that I can recommend honestly? A healthy lifestyle and daily exercise. Daily exercise actually has evidence behind it. So, among all the other benefits that a person can obtain from daily exercise, prevention of dementia is another one. There was a sub-analysis of the Women’s Health Initiative Study that was done a few years ago that looked at the impact of exercise and noted that it reduced their relative risk by about 40 percent, as a result of daily cardiovascular exercise. The reasons for that, the mechanism behind it - still remains a bit unclear but I suspect it has to do with just overall benefits of exercise and physical activity. And it doesn’t need strenuous exercise also, but some form of daily cardiovascular exercise would be a great benefit. Well, I would recommend being very judicious with alcohol intake. There is an Alcoholic dementia that exists. Otherwise, avoiding smoking. Smoking can lead to vascular problems that can lead to Vascular dementia. Good sleep, weight control - things like that.

Host: How do the dementia experts in the geriatrics program and the house-call program at MedStar Washington Hospital Center help patients and families achieve optimal outcomes?

Dr. Torres: The number one way is in the diagnosis of the condition because sometimes it can present atypically. Sometimes it can present, as I said, very subtly. So, sometimes it has to be teased out. And again, it’s time. We can gain time for better interactions, more complete interactions with the patient and the family member. And there are a few conditions that can masquerade like dementia that we can treat and reverse the symptoms that we associate with dementia - the memory loss. The one that is most well known is depression. Depression can manifest itself as a type of dementia with memory loss, with loss of concentration, with apathy, as well. And so by treating that, the patient -- effectively treating that -- the patient can regain their function and their memory.

Host: Could you give us an example of how you care for a dementia patient through the house-call program?

Dr. Torres: Well, we have a very focussed approach with really educating and helping the caregiver meet the needs and ease the process for the patient. There’s usually a lot of frustration that the caregiver feels with their loved one as the disease progresses. And the deficits become more and more overwhelming. So, we tend to review behavioral techniques that can ease the tension in the household. We can help them with treating comorbidities to maximize their time at home. And we do everything we can to help the patient age in place, which is often a great benefit for everyone - avoids unnecessary trips to the emergency department, unnecessary hospitalizations.

Host: Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Torres.

Dr. Torres: It was my pleasure.

Conclusion: Thanks for listening to Medical Intel with MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Find more podcasts from our healthcare team by visiting or subscribing in iTunes or iHeartRadio.