Myths and misconceptions about dementia abound. Many people believe dementia is a common malady that consists of memory loss brought on by aging.
The truth is that dementia is a collective term that describes two or more symptoms that greatly interfere with daily life and activities, which may include, but is not limited to memory loss and thinking difficulties, as well as impairment in communication. The chances that a person be diagnosed with dementia increases with age, but it is not a normal part of aging.
So What Does Dementia Mean?
Dementia is not a disease by itself. It is a term that describes a bundle of symptoms that are caused by a loss of healthy brain nerve cells. Dementia is brought on through diseases, such as the cognitive-damaging disease Alzheimer’s, and in some cases through a series of strokes. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
The symptoms of dementia vary depending on the areas of the brain that have changed and the disease that is causing dementia.
Symptoms of Dementia
People with dementia may experience short-term memory problems, trouble with keeping track of common items such as eyeglasses or a wallet or purse, paying bills, planning or preparing meals, remembering appointments, or they may experience confusion when traveling outside of their own neighborhood.
Symptoms vary from case to case, but at least two mental functions must be significantly impaired to be diagnosed as dementia:
- Memory loss – typically begins with short term memory loss and is often noticed by a spouse or someone else close to the patient
- Communication difficulties – struggles with finding words or expressing thoughts
- Inability to focus and pay attention – has difficulty in completing familiar tasks
- Reasoning and judgment – experiences poor decision making and takes inappropriate actions
- Visual perception – includes a range of vision changes including contrast and color, movement detection, visual field, reaction to light, as well as a loss of recognition of objects and familiar faces
Causes of Dementia
Dementia is caused by damage to or a loss of brain nerve cells. This damage hinders the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. The loss of communication leaves the patient with difficulty in thinking, resulting in changed behavior, and personal feelings are affected as well.
The most common causes of dementia include:
- Degenerative neurological diseases – Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and some types of multiple sclerosis
- Vascular diseases – disorders that affect blood circulation in the brain
- Brain injuries – caused by trauma such as car accidents, falls, and concussions
- Central nervous system infections – such as meningitis and HIV
- Long-term alcohol or drug use
- Some types of hydrocephalus – a buildup of fluid in the brain
Changes in the brain that cause dementia are often permanent and worsen over time. The good news is that some thinking and memory problems can be treated and show improvement when diagnosed, such as:
- Medication side effects
- Excess use of alcohol
- Thyroid problems
- Vitamin Deficiencies
Diagnosis of Dementia
There isn’t a single core test to determine if someone has dementia.
Doctors carefully assess and diagnose diseases and other factors that produce the symptoms of dementia, then diagnose dementia with a high degree of certainty.
Common tests for dementia include:
- Cognitive and neuropsychological tests – assess memory, problem-solving, language skills, math skills, and other abilities related to mental functioning
- Laboratory tests of blood and other fluids – determine levels of various chemicals, hormones, and vitamins
- Brain scans – identify strokes, tumors, and changes in the brain’s structure and function
- Psychiatric evaluations – helps determine if depression or another mental health condition is causing or contributing to symptoms
- Genetic tests – helps determine if a person is at risk for dementia
Treatment of Dementia
Treatment of dementia varies based on its cause. In many cases, there is no drug or treatment that slows or stops its progression. Drug treatments may temporarily improve symptoms.
Many of the same medications that are prescribed to treat Alzheimer’s are among the drugs prescribed to assist with symptoms of certain types of dementia.
Some improvement occurs when underlying risk factors are addressed such as poor diet or lack of exercise, heavy alcohol use, cardiovascular risks, depression, diabetes, smoking, sleep apnea, and vitamin and nutritional deficiencies.
What You Can Do
On average, 5% to 8% of all adults over 65 years of age have some form of dementia. This percentage doubles every five years after 65. As many as half of the population aged 80+ have some dementia. So, it is no surprise if you know someone diagnosed with dementia. Help those that you love by showing your support. Develop routines and schedules. Do not argue with your loved one, instead, give them the peace that comes with independence when possible.
Take care of yourself. Remember, you can improve your own risk factors for dementia with proper diet, exercise, and with the avoidance of heavy drinking and smoking.
Dementia research and clinical trials are making great progress in identifying potential ways to help diagnose, treat, and even prevent Alzheimer’s and related dementias. This progress is possible because thousands of people have supported the cause through participation in clinical trials and other studies.