Alzheimer’s disease and a host of other forms of dementia are being met head-on by mental health professionals in Conway, giving senior adults a shot at livable lives.

In Conway, it is the job of a group of professionals to sort all this out, and they do it in a corner of a building in the medical complex along Dave Ward Drive. There they are engaged in the art of diagnosing the forms of dementia. 

Under the aegis of the Conway Regional Health Center, this cluster of professionals is engrossed in working with a client/patient population 65 years of age or older afflicted with the most curious aspects of mental illness.

They come to the Conway Regional Senior Evaluation and Counseling Center seeking possible answers to myriad causes that not only affect the patient but also often throw a family into turmoil. But before an evaluation is done, anxious family members are advised to check with their primary doctor for possible physical problems, perhaps vascular for example, that may be compromising the patient’s state. 

In the event of negative findings, the patient may be offered an imperative evaluation by the Senior Evaluation and Counseling Center staff. Here geriatric psychiatrists Annette Anderson, M.D. and Karen Young, M.D. and/or neuropsychologist Mark Clark, Ed.D. and other specialists, undertake evaluations in efforts to seek underlying disorders that may be complicating the findings. 

In effect, the recommended evaluation for people with symptoms of dementia, says Dr. Anderson, entails talking with the patient and family member, using memory and other mental tests, blood tests and basic brain scans designed principally to rule out other conditions. 

Signaling the early onset of mental health disease are such symptoms as forgetting how to perform common tasks, changes in behavior, short term memory loss, feelings of sadness, agitation and other changes. But this is not always what is happening. A mental health evaluation and/or counseling may provide answers to many questions these symptoms conjure up.  

Dr. Anderson says, "The quality of life for the patient is utmost in any definition and work affecting the patient’s mental health." The rest of the SECC staff concurs. 

"We do a lot of dementia evaluation and we also deal with anxiety and depression issues for senior patients. Yet, if the patient is in need of inpatient service, she or he may be treated in the Conway Regional Medical Center usually for a length of stay of seven days," says Dr. Anderson, adding that inpatient stays may be appropriate and warranted in the event of a patient’s erratic behaviors joined by confusion with paranoia (delusions), hallucinations and sadness. Around the clock monitoring and evaluation may be demanded for these patients.  

From Dr. Clark comes the assertion that a battery of neuropsychology tests can develop a picture of the patient’s brain function and also determine which parts of the brain are in working order and which parts are compromised.     

Additionally, the evaluation may include an MRI of the brain to examine the structure of the organ. This information can help professionals, patients and families plan for the present and future. Support and sometimes medication for symptoms that are said to be treatable may follow. 

Another examination is called "cognitive," which is the act or process of "knowing," says Dr. Clark. This test is centered around findings for perception, memory and judgment and other elements such as thinking, planning, organizing, learning and knowing in the broadest terms.

"This neuropsychological evaluation assesses several different domains of cognitive functioning," according to Dr. Clark.

The Senior Evaluation and Counseling Center opened in March 2010. Since then, patients have been referred by family doctors, family members and sometimes self referral, if dementia or its possibility is feared. A nurse case manager, Patty Battles, R.N., and a licensed certified social worker, Londa Reevis, also are available at the clinic to provide support and counseling "as patients and families navigate through new and life changing diagnoses." 

Says Dr. Anderson: "You can have dementia and feel very miserable in a family that is suffering trying to cope with the disease and not understanding it, or you can have dementia and through education and support improve the quality of life for everybody." 

In many instances, the whole family is "treated" in family counseling sessions by the SECC staff. 

The most prevalent cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, some 55 percent of all dementia cases. Stroke, Parkinson’s disease and other multiple causes are lesser agents of dementia. 

Alzheimer’s is a progressive dementia, characterized by a slow decline in memory, language, cognition, motor skills and personality. Under its effects, the patient gradually declines and may reach a point of losing control of body functions. 

Interestingly enough, the results of a wide-ranging survey show that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans reported that if they were having memory loss and confusion, they would want to know if these were the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. 

The history of the condition dates back to the early 1900’s when Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor, observed a 51-year-old woman in an insane asylum in Frankfort, Germany. After considerable assessments, he found that she had an untreatable disease. It continues in that vein today.

In this first case, the female patient manifested impaired memory and had persecutory delusions; she was not able to find her way about in her own apartment. She suffered language abnormalities and impaired comprehension. She gradually deteriorated and died in 190l some four years after hospitalization.

Aging may be the number 1 risk factor for Alzheimer’s, but it is not a natural part of aging, according to Dr. Clark. The prevalence increases every five years after age 65. Yet if one is beginning to experience mild symptoms, it does not mean that the patient cannot to do tasks and even work.  

It also has been found that a patient in the aftermath of evaluation became less anxious after a diagnosis of dementia — and so did his or her family.