QUESTION: When I was growing up, memory loss, often called senility, was just normally expected to occur with old age. Today, I hear memory loss referred to as Alzheimer’s. Has senility just been given a new name or is Alzheimer’s something different?

ANSWER: I can remember being told exactly what you heard and am sure many others were told the same about aging and memory loss. However, what we were told many years ago about aging is no longer accurate.

Senility and Alzheimer’s disease are two completely different conditions. I referred to the American Medical Association’s Home Medical Encyclopedia and found the following definitions:

Senility is defined as changes in mental ability caused by old age resulting in some degree of impaired memory and reduced ability to concentrate. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition in which nerve cells degenerate in the brain, causing the brain to shrink, resulting in impairment of intellect, willpower and memory, causing the victim to be confused and irrational.

Many people incorrectly use the terms “Alzheimer’s” and “dementia” interchangeably. Dementia is an umbrella term covering many diseases and causes affecting memory loss. Alzheimer’s disease is one of numerous diseases included under the dementia umbrella.


What is Alzheimer’s? It is a disease that has an impact on the person’s memory, judgment, language, problem-solving ability, initiative and personality. It attacks selected areas of the brain and is progressive, irreversible and age-related. It is one of the leading causes of death among adults in the United States.

Alzheimer’s disease is not part of normal aging and is not inevitable. It is not only a disease of older people; early onset Alzheimer’s can occur in people in their 40s and 50s and accounts for approximately 10 percent of Alzheimer’s cases. Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t occur suddenly and it is not a mental illness.

The Alzheimer’s Association developed a list of common symptoms of the disease to assist in recognizing the disease in its early stages. Those symptoms include recent memory loss affecting job skills, difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with language, loss of initiative and poor or decreased judgment. Additional symptoms are disorientation to time and place, problems with abstract thinking and misplacement of things.  Changes in mood or behavior and changes in personality also could be indications of the disease.

If you recognize several of these symptoms, the Alzheimer’s Association recommends seeing your physician. For more information about Alzheimer’s disease or for referrals, call the Ventura County chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association at 494-5200.

QUESTION: I’ve been hearing a lot lately about medication errors and am concerned about my dad and his prescriptions. Is there something I can do to help prevent errors?

ANSWER: I did some checking with those who work with prescriptions and was told that about half of patient-safety issues are related to understanding medications. To ensure safety, patients or caregivers must take an active role in educating themselves about their illnesses and associated medications.

There are a few basic questions that you should be able to answer about each medication prescribed. What is the name of the medication prescribed and is it brand-name or generic? What is the purpose of the medication? How and when should it be taken and for what period of time?

You should also know what side effects you might expect and, if they occur, what action should be taken. Ask if it is safe to take a particular medication with other medications (prescribed and over-the-counter) or dietary supplements and what, if any, food, drink or activities should be avoided.

Ask your pharmacist to print the name and purpose of the drug on the container label and discard old prescriptions so they won’t be confused with those currently being taken.

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