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May 30, 2023

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has dementia. What are warning signs of the condition?

Dementia affects one in 10 older Americans. Symptoms may include severe issues with memory, language and problem-solving

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has dementia, the Carter family announced Tuesday. She is currently spending time at home in Georgia with her family and husband of more than seven decades, former President Jimmy Carter, who entered hospice care in February.

"She continues to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones," the statement, posted by the couple's humanitarian organization, The Carter Center, reads.

During her time as first lady and beyond, Carter, now 95, has advocated for people struggling with mental health, hoping to decrease the stigma surrounding mental health conditions. She also launched her own foundation to support those who act as caregivers for loved ones.

Like her husband, Carter's specific diagnosis has not been revealed, and the family says they will not be commenting further on the news.

"We recognize, as she did more than half a century ago, that stigma is often a barrier that keeps individuals and their families from seeking and getting much-needed support," the Carter family said. "We hope sharing our family's news will increase important conversations at kitchen tables and in doctor’s offices around the country."

Dementia affects an estimated 7 million older adults in the U.S. — and more than 55 million people worldwide — and the numbers are expected to rise.

Dementia is not one singular disease or diagnosis. Rather, it is a blanket term used to describe a variety of specific medical conditions caused by abnormal brain changes. Dementia may display as severe issues with memory, language, problem-solving or other thinking abilities that interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia.

Although dementia affects mostly older adults, it is not a normal part of aging, according to the CDC. Thus, age-related memory changes like occasionally misplacing car keys or forgetting the name of an acquaintance do not necessarily denote dementia. Older adults who are not afflicted with dementia can usually recall knowledge, memories and experiences built over the years, as well as language.

Common symptoms of dementia

• Memory loss that affects daily functioning — People with dementia may get lost in a familiar neighborhood or forget the name of a close family member or friend. They may also misplace things in ill-suited places, like putting their car keys in the refrigerator.
• Changes in personality or mood  — People struggling with dementia may show intense mood swings with no apparent provocation. They might also display distinct changes in personality or loss of interest in favorite people or activities.
• Difficulty with language — A person with dementia might forget simple words or use unusual words to refer to familiar objects.
• Challenges understanding visual information — People with dementia may struggle with visual perception issues beyond what could be expected of typical age-related changes in vision. They might experience double vision or have problems navigating space, like putting a mug down on a table.
• Inability to complete tasks independently — Someone with dementia might experience impaired judgment, issues with abstract thinking or a loss of initiative, all things that would make it difficult to complete everyday tasks on their own.

Signs of dementia often start out slowly before gradually worsening, so people who are experiencing symptoms are urged to seek medical evaluation from a health care provider. 

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