Screening for seniors

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In this Monday, March 4, 2019 photo, Dr. Allison Magnuson, left, speaks with patient Nancy Simpson at the Pluta Cancer Center in Rochester, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

In this Monday, March 4, 2019 photo, Dr. Allison Magnuson, left, speaks with patient Nancy Simpson at the Pluta Cancer Center in Rochester, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Senior citizens are an oft-overlooked sect of the population, although the percentage of people aged 65 or older is rapidly rising. This age group currently represents 8.5 percent of the global population and the latest models predict that this number will grow to 17 percent by 2050. Despite their growing presence in society, elderly people are still too often neglected and stripped of their autonomy, especially in Western culture. This is partially due to a cultural lack of appreciation for elders, but a loss of independence may also be inevitable as a result of varying ailments and diseases that come with old age. As people age and become increasingly prone to health problems, they tend to require more assistance than in their earlier adult years. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia contribute to the loss of freedom that many older adults face; these are made further debilitating by the lack of required cognition tests during physical exams.   

Physical exams incorporate blood pressure and cholesterol measurements, but regular examinations for signs of mental deterioration are scarce. And while physical health is still important, what good is a strong body if it is housing an ailing mind? Especially during this particularly susceptible stage of life, mental health and consequent quality of life should not be disregarded.   

In most cases, if seniors do not present with apparent symptoms or voice their concerns, physicians do not address cognitive condition. Annual physician checkups for seniors therefore do not generally include Alzheimer’s and general dementia screenings, which involve questions and observations to assess memory, attention, decision-making and speech. These brief tests could vastly improve the quality of life for a person with dementia, which is typically not diagnosed until it is far too late. If dementia is caught earlier, patients have the chance to enroll in a clinical trial or at least plan ahead, equipped with the knowledge of their imminent decline.  

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, catching the disease early on results in a multitude of benefits to patients and their families, including emotional ease, treatment when possible and education about the condition. Although 94 percent of primary care physicians surveyed found it important to regularly test for cognitive impairment in people over the age of 65, only 47 percent claimed to do so, resulting in only 16 percent of seniors tested.  

The simple solution is to set a standard of mental health screenings at all regular checkups for those above the age of 65. However, as in most cases, the reality is not so clear-cut.  

The general avoidance of the topic of cognitive screening by primary care physicians is largely due to perceptions of insufficient time during checkups, anticipated patient resistance or refusal and a lack of treatments. A very small percentage of physicians and seniors are concerned about possible distress to a patient upon early diagnosis with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Establishing cognition tests as the norm and working to destigmatize dementia could alleviate some of these barriers. Furthermore, a greater dedication should be made towards studying and seeking cures for dementia, thereby additionally motivating detection. 

Aging is an unavoidable fact of life and there is no reason why people should be overlooked simply because they surpass a certain age. More attention should be placed on elders, in both social and healthcare spheres, as there is a necessity for increased research into geriatric needs and treatments for dementia. Reaching the age of 65 should not mean that a person’s life is over; seniors still have more life to lead and should be assisted in as many ways as possible to make the most out of their remaining time.  


Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at veronica.eskander@uconn.edu.   

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