by Josh Antles
What is your first thought when you read: social withdrawal, irritability, mood changes, aloofness, nighttime restlessness, difficulty concentrating, decreased interest in activities, depression and memory loss? You may be thinking, “Those are symptoms of dementia.” Nice work! You are correct. These are many of the symptoms of dementia, but these symptoms are also some of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a psychological disorder that occurs as a result of one, or many traumatic experiences. Treatment for PTSD can be life long and often involves patients and loved ones working together to both address and accept these symptoms. So what happens if an individual with PTSD begins to experience the signs of dementia? The overlap in symptoms can make it difficult to identify the signs of early stage memory loss.
Lon Cole knows first hand the difficulties of PTSD and dementia. In 2007, Lon was hospitalized to treat his PTSD; a by-product of serving as a medic for the Marine Corp in Vietnam. When released, the VA informed him of memory problems, but it took over a year for him to receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia.
Because of the similarities between PTSD and dementia, changes can be difficult to identify and easy to disregard. If you are noticing subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes in yourself or a loved one, listen to your gut. Your experience makes you the expert, and your intuition is rarely wrong. Research suggests that male veterans who experience PTSD are two times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.*This proposed correlation between PTSD and dementia, combined with the benefits associated with early diagnosis,** make it important to address as soon as possible.
There are ways to sidestep the similarities in symptoms to make an accurate diagnosis. Check to see if you are noticing any of the other 10 warning signs of dementia and schedule an appointment with a doctor. A specialist with expertise in both psychology and neurology (neurologist, neuropsychologist, or psychiatrist) may be the most helpful due to the interrelatedness of these conditions.
Lon saw a neurologist at the VA hospital and after four hours of testing and a two-week wait, his doctor knew. “When I was diagnosed, I decided that although I had Alzheimer’s disease, I was not going to let it have me. Or define who I am,” said Lon. “I still have to be treated for the PTSD, but I get a lot of help from the VA.”
PTSD related to military experience can often allow care partners and veterans to access Veterans Administration (VA) benefits. VA members can have access to consistent medical care, which is often localized, promotes provider communication and covers the necessary testing needed to make a differential diagnosis. If eligible, the VA also can provide benefits for the care partner including, aid and attendance and respite care. To inquire about your eligibility contact the Veterans Administration Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274.
If you have experience coping with PTSD and are now facing a dementia diagnosis, there is a silver lining. You already have experience managing many of these co-occurring symptoms and are likely much ahead of the curve. Just as as Lon learned, you will find that you’re not a beginner at coping and persevering in the face of adversity. This is just another hurdle in life’s race. A race in which you are multiple hurdles ahead of the pack.
*Yaffe, K., Vittinghoff, E., Lindquist, K., Barnes, D., Covinsky, K. E., Neylan, T., … Marmar, C. (2010). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Risk of Dementia among U.S. Veterans. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(6), 608–613. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.61
Josh Antles is a Care Consultant at the Alzheimer’s Association and runs an Early Stage Memory Loss Support Group, many of whom have dual diagnoses of PTSD and dementia.