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Dementia: Coping with common, sometimes distressing behaviors

Confused older father with dementia seated on bed, adult son kneeling, holding his hands and talking to himDementia poses many challenges, both for people struggling with it and for those close to them. It can be hard to witness and cope with common behaviors that arise from illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, or frontotemporal dementia.

Caring for a person who has dementia may be frustrating, confusing, or upsetting at times. Understanding why certain behaviors occur and learning ways to handle a variety of situations can help smooth the path ahead.

What behaviors are common when a person has dementia?

People with dementia often exhibit a combination of unusual behaviors, such as:

  • Making odd statements or using the wrong words for certain items.
  • Not realizing they need to bathe or forgetting how to maintain good hygiene.
  • Repeating themselves or asking the same question over and over.
  • Misplacing objects or taking others’ belongings.
  • Not recognizing you or remembering who they are.
  • Being convinced that a deceased loved one is still alive.
  • Hoarding objects, such as mail or even garbage.
  • Exhibiting paranoid behavior.
  • Becoming easily confused or agitated.
  • Leaving the house without telling you, and getting lost.

Why do these behaviors occur?

Inside the brain of a loved one with dementia, picture a wildfire shifting course, damaging or destroying brain cells (neurons) and neural networks that regulate our behavior.

What drives this damage depends on the underlying cause, or causes, of dementia. For example, while the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not known, it is strongly linked to proteins that are either gunking up or strangling brain cells. Someone with vascular dementia has experienced periodic insufficient blood flow to certain areas of the brain, causing neurons to die.

“As dementia progresses, the person loses brain cells associated with memory, planning, judgment, and controlling mood. You lose your filters,” says Dr. Stephanie Collier, a psychiatrist at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital.

Six strategies for coping with dementia-related behaviors

Dealing with distressing or puzzling dementia-related behavior can require the type of tack you’d take with a youngster. “Due to declines, older adults with dementia can seem like children. But people are generally more patient with children. You should consider using that approach with older adults,” suggests Lydia Cho, a McLean Hospital neuropsychologist.

  • Don’t point out inaccurate or strange statements. “It can make people with dementia feel foolish or belittled. They may not remember details but hold onto those emotions, feel isolated, and withdraw. Instead, put them at ease. Just go with what they’re saying. Keep things light,” Cho says.
  • Don’t try to reason with the person. Dementia has damaged your loved one’s comprehension. Attempting to reason might be frustrating for both of you.
  • Use distraction. This helps when the person makes unreasonable requests or is moderately agitated. “Acknowledge what the person is saying, and change the activity. You could say, ‘I see that you’re upset. Let’s go over here for a minute.’ And then do an activity that engages the senses and relaxes them, such as sitting outside together, listening to music, folding socks, or eating a piece of fruit,” Dr. Collier says.
  • Keep unsafe items out of sight. Put away or lock up belongings the loved one shouldn’t have — especially potentially dangerous items like car keys or cleaning fluids. Consider installing cabinet locks.
  • Supervise hygiene routines. The person with dementia might need a reminder to bathe, or might need to have the day’s clothes laid out on the bed. Or you might need to assist with bathing, shaving, brushing teeth, or dressing.
  • Spend time together. You don’t have to convince your loved one of your identity or engage in fascinating conversation. Just listen to music or do some simple activities together. It will help keep the person from withdrawing further.

Safety is essential when a person has dementia

Sometimes simple strategies aren’t enough when a loved one has dementia.

For example, if the person frequently tries to leave home, you might need to add child-proof covers to doorknobs, install additional door locks or a security system in your home, or get the person a GPS tracker bracelet.

If the person is frequently upset or even violent, you’ll need to call the doctor. It could be that a new medical problem (such as a urinary tract infection) is causing agitation. “If the agitated behavior isn’t due to a new health problem and is predictable and severe, we might prescribe a medication to help regulate mood, such as an antidepressant or an antipsychotic in cases of extreme agitation or hostility,” Dr. Collier says.

As dementia changes, seek the help and support you need

No one expects you to know how to interact with someone who has dementia. There’s a learning curve for all of us, and it continues even after you get a feel for the situation. “The process keeps changing,” Cho says. “What works today may not work next week or the week after that for your loved one. So keep trying different strategies.”

And get support for yourself, such as group therapy for caregivers and their families. You can also find information at the Alzheimer’s Association or Family Caregiver Alliance.

About the Author

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Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Heidi Godman is the executive editor of the Harvard Health Letter. Before coming to the Health Letter, she was an award-winning television news anchor and medical reporter for 25 years. Heidi was named a journalism fellow … See Full Bio View all posts by Heidi Godman

About the Reviewer

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Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Howard LeWine, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD

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How does waiting on prostate cancer treatment affect survival?

close-up photo of a vial of blood marked PSA test alongside a pen; both are resting on a document showing the PSA test results

Prostate cancer progresses slowly, but for how long is it possible to put off treatment? Most newly diagnosed men have low-risk or favorable types of intermediate-risk prostate cancer that doctors can watch and treat only if the disease is found to be at higher risk of progression. This approach, called active surveillance, allows men to delay — or in some cases, outlive — the need for aggressive treatment, which has challenging side effects.

In 1999, British researchers launched a clinical trial comparing outcomes among 1,643 men who were either treated immediately for their cancer or followed on active surveillance (then called active monitoring). The men’s average age at enrollment was 62, and they all had low- to intermediate risk tumors with prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels ranging from 3.0 to 18.9 nanograms per milliliter.

Long-term results from the study, which were published in March, show that prostate cancer death rates were low regardless of the therapeutic strategy. “This hugely important study shows quite clearly that there is no urgency to treat men with low- and even favorable intermediate-risk prostate cancer,” says Dr. Anthony Zietman, the Jenot W. and William U. Shipley Professor of Radiation Oncology at Harvard Medical School, anda radiation oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who was involved in the research and is a member of the Harvard Medical School Annual Report on Prostate Diseases editorial board. “They give up nothing in terms of 15-year survival.”

What the results showed

During the study, called the Prostate Testing for Cancer and Treatment (ProtecT) trial, researchers randomized 545 men to active monitoring, 533 men to surgical removal of the prostate, and 545 men to radiation.

After a median follow-up of 15 years, 356 men had died from any cause, including 45 men who died from prostate cancer specifically: 17 from the active monitoring group, 12 from the surgery group, and 16 from the radiation group. Men in the active surveillance group did have higher rates of cancer progression than the treated men did. More of them were eventually treated with drugs that suppress testosterone, a hormone that fuels prostate cancer growth.

In all, 51 men from the active surveillance group developed metastatic prostate cancer, which is roughly twice the number of those treated with surgery or radiation. But 133 men in the active surveillance group also avoided any treatment and were still alive when the follow-up concluded.

Experts weigh in

In a press release, the study’s lead author, Dr. Freddie Hamdy of the University of Oxford, claims that while cancer progression and the need for hormonal therapy were more limited in the treatment groups, “those reductions did not translate into differences in mortality.” The findings suggest that for some men, aggressive therapy “results in more harm than good,” Dr. Hamdy says.

Dr. Zietman agrees, adding that active surveillance protocols today are even safer than those used when ProtecT was initiated. Unlike in the past, for instance, active surveillance protocols now make more use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans that detect cancer progression in the prostate with high resolution.

Dr. Boris Gershman, a surgeon who specializes in urology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and is also an Annual Report on Prostate Diseases editorial board member, cautions that the twofold higher risk of developing metastasis among men on active surveillance may eventually translate into a mortality difference at 20-plus years.

“It’s important to not extend the data beyond their meaning,” says Dr. Gershman, who was not involved in the study. “These results should not be used to infer that all prostate cancer should not be treated, or that there is no benefit to treatment for men with more aggressive disease.” Still, ProtecT is a landmark study in urology, Dr. Gershman says, that “serves to reinforce active surveillance as the preferred management strategy for men with low-risk prostate cancer and some men with intermediate-risk prostate cancer.”

Dr. Marc B. Garnick, the Gorman Brothers Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and editor in chief of the Annual Report, points out that nearly all the enrolled subjects provided follow-up data for the study’s duration, which is highly unusual for large clinical trials with long follow-up. The authors had initially predicted that patients from the active monitoring group who developed metastases at 10 years would have shortened survival at 15 years, “but this was not the case,” Dr. Garnick says. “As with many earlier PSA screening studies, the impact of local therapy on long-term survival for this class of prostate cancer — whether it be radiation or surgery — was again brought into question,” he says.

About the Author

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Charlie Schmidt, Editor, Harvard Medical School Annual Report on Prostate Diseases

Charlie Schmidt is an award-winning freelance science writer based in Portland, Maine. In addition to writing for Harvard Health Publishing, Charlie has written for Science magazine, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Environmental Health Perspectives, … See Full Bio View all posts by Charlie Schmidt

About the Reviewer

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Marc B. Garnick, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Medical School Annual Report on Prostate Diseases; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing

Dr. Marc B. Garnick is an internationally renowned expert in medical oncology and urologic cancer. A clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, he also maintains an active clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical … See Full Bio View all posts by Marc B. Garnick, MD

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Considering collagen drinks and supplements?

A red-colored drink being poured from a bottle into a glass with ice; concept is collagen drinks

A tremendous buzz surrounds collagen drinks and supplements, as celebrities and influencers tout miraculous benefits for skin, hair, and nails. Since the collagen in our bodies provides crucial support for these tissues, it seems plausible that consuming collagen might lead to lush locks and a youthful glow. But what does the science say?

What is collagen?

Collagen is a major structural protein in our tissues. It’s found in skin, hair, nails, tendons, cartilage, and bones. Collagen works with other substances, such as hyaluronic acid and elastin, to maintain skin elasticity, volume, and moisture. It also helps make up proteins such as keratin that form skin, hair, and nails.

Our bodies naturally produce collagen using the amino acids from protein-rich or collagen-rich foods like bone broth, meat, and fish. But aging, sun damage, smoking, and alcohol consumption all decrease collagen production.

Collagen drinks and supplements often contain collagen from many different sources, such as fish, cattle, pigs, or chicken. Typically, they contain peptides, short chains of amino acids that help make up essential proteins in the body, including collagen itself and keratin.

What does the science say about collagen drinks and supplements?

Research on skin includes:

  • A review and analysis of 19 studies, published in the International Journal of Dermatology, that had a total of 1,125 participants. Those who used collagen supplements saw an improvement in the firmness, suppleness, and moisture content of the skin, with wrinkles appearing less noticeable. That sounds promising, but it’s unclear if these skin improvements were actually due to collagen. Most of the trials used commercially available supplements that contained more than collagen: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, coenzyme Q10, hyaluronic acid, and chondroitin sulfate were among the additional ingredients.
  • A few randomized, controlled trials (see here and here) show that drinking collagen supplements with high amounts of the peptides prolylhydroxyproline and hydroxyprolylglycine can improve skin moisture, elasticity, wrinkles, and roughness. But large, high-quality studies are needed to learn whether commercially available products are helpful and safe to use long-term.

Hardly any evidence supports the use of collagen to enhance hair and nails. One small 2017 study of 25 people with brittle nails found that taking 2.5 grams of collagen daily for 24 weeks improved brittleness and nail growth. However, this small study had no control group taking a placebo to compare with the group receiving collagen supplements.

There haven’t been any studies in humans examining the benefits of collagen supplementation for hair. Currently, no medical evidence supports marketing claims that collagen supplements or drinks can improve hair growth, shine, volume, and thickness.

Should you try collagen supplements or drinks?

At this time, there isn’t enough proof that taking collagen pills or consuming collagen drinks will make a difference in skin, hair, or nails. Our bodies cannot absorb collagen in its whole form. To enter the bloodstream, it must be broken down into peptides so it can be absorbed through the gut.

These peptides may be broken down further into the building blocks that make proteins like keratin that help form skin, hair, and nails. Or the peptides may form collagen that gets deposited in other parts of the body, such as cartilage, bone, muscles, or tendons. Thus far, no human studies have clearly proven that collagen you take orally will end up in your skin, hair, or nails.

If your goal is to improve skin texture and elasticity and minimize wrinkles, you’re better off focusing on sun protection and using topical retinoids. Extensive research has already demonstrated that these measures are effective.

If you choose to try collagen supplements or drinks, review the list of ingredients and the protein profile. Avoid supplements with too many additives or fillers. Products containing high quantities of prolylhydroxyproline and hydroxyprolylglycine are better at reducing wrinkles and improving the moisture content of skin.

Consult your doctor before starting any new supplements. People who are prone to gout or have other medical conditions that require them to limit protein should not use collagen supplements or drinks.

The bottom line

Large-scale trials evaluating the benefits of oral collagen supplements for skin and hair health are not available. If you’re concerned about thinning or lackluster hair, brittle nails, or keeping skin smooth and healthy, talk to your doctor or a dermatologist for advice on the range of options.

It will also help to:

  • Follow a healthy lifestyle and eat a balanced diet that includes protein-rich foods.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Limit alcohol to two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women.
  • Apply sunscreen daily and remember to reapply every two hours.
  • Wear wide-brimmed or UV-protective hats and clothing when you’re spending a lot of time in the sun.

Follow Payal Patel on Twitter @PayalPatelMD

Follow Maryanne Makredes Senna on Twitter @HairWithDrMare

About the Authors

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Payal Patel, MD, Contributor

Dr. Payal Patel is a dermatology research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her clinical and research interests include autoimmune disease and procedural dermatology. She is part of the Cutaneous Biology Research Center, where she investigates medical … See Full Bio View all posts by Payal Patel, MD photo of Maryanne Makredes Senna, MD

Maryanne Makredes Senna, MD, Contributor

Dr. Maryanne Makredes Senna is a board-certified dermatologist at at Beth Israel Lahey Health, and assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Senna founded and directs the Lahey Hair Loss Center of Excellence and … See Full Bio View all posts by Maryanne Makredes Senna, MD