How to Read the News: Part 4 of 5

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

The purpose of the Brain Today blog is to distill the daily news about brain health and help the public understand the essential meaning of each article. Through time however, I have found myself clarifying the same themes over and over again. Five of these themes are explored in this five-part series “How to Read the News About Alzheimer’s and Dementia”.

How to Read the News About Alzheimer’s and Dementia - Part 4 The Term “Dementia” cannot be Interpreted Loosely

The term dementia is commonly used quite carelessly in the general press and is all too often interchanged inappropriately with the term “Alzheimer’s disease”. However, it has a very specific definition that is well understood by the scientists and physicians who are often quoted in articles for public consumption.

The problem arises when journalists and editors are not sensitive to the definition and proceed to use the term recklessly. I wrote in more detail about this here, but according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, American Psychiatric Association, dementia is a clinical state characterized by loss of function in multiple cognitive domains. Diagnostic features include: memory impairment and at least one of the following: aphasia, apraxia, agnosia, disturbances in executive functioning. In addition, the cognitive impairments must be severe enough to cause impairment in social and occupational functioning.

The point I most want to emphasize is in the last line (“must be severe enough to…”) of the definition above. Dementia is a state of fairly severe impairment. Special tests are not really required to detect dementia, as any physician should be able to recognize it after a short interaction with the patient. Subtle memory loss or difficulties with language are not dementia.

In terms of interpreting the news, you might be surprised how often you will read about a method for diagnosing dementia or a drug for treating dementia. This is a sign of an uninformed source because dementia is merely a description of the severity of the cognitive problem. A reliable source would write about a method for diagnosing some medical condition (that might cause dementia) or a drug for treating a medical condition (that might cause dementia).

Being aware of this common mistake will help you gauge the reliability of any source you happen to be reading.

Here are the links to each other part of this series:
Part 1 of 5: Be Aware of the Author's Definition of AD
Part 2 of 5: Don't be Mislead by Data on Treatment Efficacy
Part 3 of 5: Common Assertions about Diagnostic Accuracy Hide Truth
Part 5 of 5: "No Cure" Not as Bad as it Sounds

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