Actress Nichelle Nichols in Conservatorship Battle Surrounding Dementia

legal battle ensues over "star trek" actress suffering from dementia

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Dementia concept, head silhouette puzzle becoming undone
The CDC defines dementia as an impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions, thus interfering with doing everyday activities. Photo By Pixel-Shot / Shutterstock

Nichelle Nichols, best known for her role as communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura on Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series, finds herself at the center of a conservatorship battle, much like that of singer Britney Spears. Like Spears, Nichols is a famous entertainer at risk of exploitation by her legal conservators.

In Nichols’s case, a tug-of-war over the actress’s care has erupted between her only child, her former manager, and a concerned friend, each of whom claims that at least one other party will exert undue influence over and exploit her. Unlike Spears, Nichols, 88, suffers dementia.

In his video series The Aging Brain, Dr. Thad Polk, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan, explained the difference between dementia and normal mental lapses.

When to Worry and When Not to Worry

Forgetfulness is a normal part of human existence. The elderly tend to forget things more than younger people do, often leading to unnecessary concerns about dementia. Of course, dementia should be taken seriously, but not every instance of forgetfulness should raise a red flag.

“Most older people experience memory problems from time to time,” Dr. Polk said. “Perhaps they forget where they put their glasses or their keys, or they forget where they parked the car; maybe they neglect to make one of their monthly payments or have trouble remembering a specific word or an acquaintance’s name. Many people experience problems like these as they age and they aren’t normally a cause for concern.”

At the same time, genuine cases of dementia shouldn’t be ignored. So when is it time to worry? According to Dr. Polk, when memory lapses become severe enough that they disrupt daily life, they might be a sign of early dementia.

“Temporarily forgetting the word for toothbrush probably doesn’t indicate a problem, but forgetting what a toothbrush is for might,” he said. “Warning signs include symptoms like asking for the same information over and over, finding it really hard to complete mental tasks that used to be easy, or forgetting what season it is.

“Other early symptoms could include getting lost in a very familiar environment, having trouble carrying on a simple conversation, or failing to take care of basic personal hygiene.”

Types of Dementia

There are many different kinds of dementia. Some are reversible, depending on what causes them. Depression, vitamin B12 deficiency, and Lyme disease all cause dementia-like symptoms and can be cured. Benzodiazepines like xanax, ativan, and valium can also cause memory loss, as can opioid painkillers like vicodin and percocet.

However, dementia can also be caused by brain disease. The most common and well-known is Alzheimer’s disease, but there are others.

“For example, over 50% of patients with Parkinson’s disease eventually develop symptoms of dementia, although it typically takes about 10 years after the onset of Parkinson’s for such symptoms to appear,” Dr. Polk said. “Progressive loss of neurons in the frontal and temporal cortex can also produce a dementia called Pick’s disease or frontotemporal dementia.

“This disorder is characterized by significant personality changes, by apathy, and by problems understanding and producing language.”

Vascular dementia, also known as multi-infarct dementia, is common in older people. An infarct, Dr. Polk said, is a localized area of tissue that dies from oxygen deprivation. People have a stroke when they have an infarct in the brain.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily