Aging is inevitable, and health issues can start to arise as our bodies get older. While some aches, pains and forgetfulness are a normal part of this process, other symptoms can signal a more serious problem.
September is Healthy Aging Month, and UT Health physicians want to remind caregivers that now is a great time to take a closer look at the health of the senior citizens in their lives.“When most people think of health-care concerns as we age, they most commonly think about memory loss and dementia. It is a major concern because it limits the physical, mental and financial independence of the elderly,” said Dr. Anu Garg, program director of the Geriatric Medicine Fellowship. “It’s important that seniors and their families seek out care early. We can help to maintain their quality of life longer.”
Darletta Snyder said she sought out a geriatrician when she felt her husband’s needs were no longer a good fit for their family practice physician.
“Sam had some concerns about his memory, and I thought it would be best if we found a doctor that was specially trained in caring for us,” she said. “Dr. Garg listened to our concerns and felt it would be a good idea to have a more detailed evaluation done. Everything came out fine for Sam, but she has continued to care for us and does a great job in seeing we stay healthy.”
Garg said warning signs of dementia can include repeating questions, forgetting to pay bills or take medications, and leaving the stove or oven on.
“As we age, we do become more forgetful, but this forgetfulness should be seen as a warning sign and the patient should be evaluated,” she said. “We use the St. Louis University Mental Status evaluation to determine if there are signs of early dementia and can start medications that can slow its progression, if necessary.”
Garg said there isn’t a cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease at this time, but she has begun collaborating with a UT assistant professor of neuroscience to explore new medications for treatment.
Dr. Joshua Park received two grants this year to assist in funding his research into how a common food additive could reverse brain cell damage caused by the disease. Midi-GAGR, a byproduct of low acyl gellan gum, already has shown promise in lab testing to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease in mice.
“There is still much more testing to do before we will be approved for human trials, but it should move fairly quickly as low acyl gellan gum is used as a thickening agent in foods like pudding and has already been approved for human consumption by the FDA,” he said.
Until a cure is found, patients and their caregivers need to know there are support systems available for individuals who are experiencing memory loss and early symptoms of dementia.
“This is a progressive disease and it can become very difficult for caregivers to support their loved one as they become less independent,” Garg said. “We work with social workers to reach out to organizations and programs and connect them to families as they travel this path.”
Social workers connect patients with community resources such as the Alzheimer’s Association, Area Office on Aging and Lutheran Village at Wolf Creek, which provide geriatric wellness and caregiver support programming.
UT’s Center for Successful Aging is another resource for education and finding resources within the community.
“Our focus is on education, research and service,” said Victoria Steiner, assistant director of the center. “We offer a graduate certificate in gerontology to support those who wish to work with seniors, participate in local research to determine our community’s needs, and work closely with area support organizations to provide educational outreach programs and to connect individuals with the support they need to age well.”
Garg created a support fund for the center to continue to promote geriatric medicine education for students, residents and fellows; enhance research and education activities; and promote team building and support excercises for those who provide senior care.
“It is important that all caregivers, including medical team members, take time to get the support they need when caring for elderly patients,” she said. “It can be very taxing as patients can progressively lose their independence and it’s easy to get burnt out.”
While caring for aging patients can be challenging at times, Garg said she is confident she is making a difference for older adults and their families.
Snyder says switching to a geriatric specialist was the right decision for her and her husband.
“Going to see Dr. Garg is enjoyable,” Snyder said. “She is very knowledgeable and listens to us and has a great sense of humor. It’s comforting to know we are with someone who cares and stays on top of our health.”