senior woman sitting and thinkingBehaviors such as irritability, anxiety and depression can be symptoms of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia in older adults. But according to a new survey, as many as two-thirds of caregivers mistakenly attribute these symptoms to a natural part of the aging process. This misunderstanding can keep their loved ones from getting a diagnosis and Alzheimer’s care they need.

750 friends and relatives who care for someone with dementia were surveyed online between April and May of 2012. The survey, released this month by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, examined how behavioral symptoms compare to cognitive ones (such as memory loss of confusion) in terms of the diagnosis and treatment of dementia. After taking the survey, 67 percent of respondents now believe that their misunderstanding about symptoms of dementia caused a delay in their loved ones’ diagnoses.

“The survey findings sound another loud wake-up call that we must address this public health crisis, and reinforce that education and early detection must be among the nation’s key strategies in tackling it,” Eric J. Hall, AFA’s president and CEO, said in a press release.

“Families can’t afford missed opportunities for help that can result from a timely and proper diagnosis.”

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a number of medications originally intended to treat the symptoms of other diseases for the treatment of behavioral symptoms of dementia. Common examples are drugs for hallucinations and agitation.  The response to these medications varies widely.  47 percent of caregivers say that the medications “help a lot,” according to the survey.

Non-medical treatments can also be an option. According to the survey, 82 percent of physicians suggest techniques such as support groups, communication therapies, and activities such as music and artwork to help treat behavioral symptoms. Many physicians are now suggesting a multi-pronged approach that uses both medication and non-drug treatments.

Understanding the symptoms of Alzheimers is growing ever more important: an estimated 5.1 million Americans live with the disease, and this number is expected to skyrocket as the population’s average age rises in the coming years.

Everyone needs to have a better understanding about normal aging and key signs that a loved one’s ability to think, remember, reason and speak have changed over time.  Because of new studies available, many forms of dementia can be diagnosed before significant changes occur, and medications and non-pharmaceutical interventions are available that show promise in delaying the onset of dementia.  

If you have questions about Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of dementia, contact your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to find answers and resources in your community.

Do you have a story about a loved one with Alzheimer’s? If you’d like to share, we would love to hear from you in the comments below!