Hitting a Nerve

When’s the right time to use dementia as a diagnosis?


Is dementia a diagnosis?

I use it myself, although I find that some neurologists consider this blasphemy.


The problem is that there aren’t many terms to cover cognitive disorders beyond mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Phrases like “cortical degeneration” and “frontotemporal disorder” are difficult for families and patients. They aren’t medically trained and want something easy to write down.

“Alzheimer’s,” or – as one patient’s family member says, “the A-word” – is often more accurate, but has stigma attached to it that many don’t want, especially at a first visit. It also immediately conjures up feared images of nursing homes, wheelchairs, and bed-bound people.

So I use a diagnosis of dementia with many families, at least initially. Since, with occasional exceptions, we tend to perform a work-up of all cognitive disorders the same way, I don’t have a problem with using a more generic blanket term. As I sometimes try to simplify things, I’ll say, “It’s like squares and rectangles. Alzheimer’s disease is a dementia, but not all dementias are Alzheimer’s disease.”

I don’t do this to avoid confrontation, be dishonest, mislead patients and families, or avoid telling the truth. I still make it very clear that this is a progressive neurologic illness that will cause worsening cognitive problems over time. But many times families aren’t ready for “the A-word” early on, or there’s a concern the patient will harm themselves while they still have that capacity. Sometimes, it’s better to use a different phrase.

It may all be semantics, but on a personal level, a word can make a huge difference.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

So I say dementia. In spite of some editorials I’ve seen saying we should retire the phrase, I argue that in many circumstances it’s still valid and useful.

It may not be a final, or even specific, diagnosis, but it is often the best and most socially acceptable one at the beginning of the doctor-patient-family relationship. When you’re trying to build rapport with them, that’s equally critical when you know what’s to come down the road.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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