It can be extremely distressing to suspect that you or a loved one has dementia. But the more you understand the condition, the more you can do to improve the outcome.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a series of symptoms involving memory loss, changes in personality, and diminished mental functioning arising from disease or brain trauma. Such changes are not part of natural aging and are extremely significant to impact on everyday life, health, and ties. While Alzheimer’s disease is the most prevalent type of dementia, several other types, including vascular and mixed dementia, exist as well.
With dementia, communication, listening, understanding, and problem solving will definitely be rapidly deteriorating. Those changes can happen quickly or very slowly. Progression and result differ but are primarily dictated by the form of dementia and the region of the brain affected.
Facing the likelihood of dementia gradually changes your beliefs, relationships, and goals. Yet having signs doesn’t have to mean losing your normal life. When detected in time, some forms of dementia can be slowed down, or even reversed. The first step is to consider what separates normal memory loss from symptoms of dementia, and how to recognise the various forms of dementia. However, whatever your condition, there can be plenty of things you can do to help ease the symptoms and keep living a complete and satisfying life.
Symptoms and signs of dementia
As we age, many of us have lapses of memory. It can be troubling and frustrating to know that something you once took for granted is not working as well as it used to be. But learning to discern the symptoms of dementia from normal aging will either help you relax your mind or motivate you to start taking measures to slow down or reverse the disease.
Common signs and symptoms include:
- Memory loss
- Impaired judgement
- Difficulties with abstract thinking
- Faulty reasoning
- Inappropriate behavior
- Loss of communication skills
- Disorientation to time and place
- Gait, motor, and balance problems
- Neglect of personal care and safety
- Hallucinations, paranoia, agitation
Someone with dementia symptoms may:
- Repeatedly ask the same questions
- Become lost or disoriented in familiar places
- Be unable to follow directions
- Be disoriented about the sate or time of day
- Not recognize or be confused about familiar people
- Have difficulty with routine tasks such as paying the bills
- Neglect personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition
Normal memory changes versus dementia symptoms
It’s something we must all face, but the unavoidable aging changes can also be both humbling and shocking. But though experiencing skin wrinkling, hair color fading and moderate, short-term memory loss is typical as we age, extreme and rapid memory loss is certainly NOT a part of normal aging. In reality, by staying active mentally and physically, and making other healthy lifestyle decisions, many people can maintain their brain power as they get older.
Normal memory changes associated with aging may include:
Slower thinking and problem solving – The speed of learning slows down; short-term memory takes longer to function; reaction time increases.
Decreased attention and concentration – More distractedness. All of the interruptions make learning more difficult.
Slower recall – A greater need for hints to jog the memory.
Identifying between normal memory loss and dementia symptoms is not an exact science but there are some clues to look for:
Are your memory changes typical aging or symptoms of dementia?
Symptoms of dementia:
You or a loved one complain about memory loss but are able to provide detailed examples of your forgetfulness
You complain of memory loss only if asked but are unable to recall specific instances
You occasionally search for words
You experience frequent word-finding pauses and substitutions
You may have to pause to remember directions, but don’t get lost in familiar places
You get lost in familiar places and take excessive time to return home
You remember recent important events and your conversations are not impaired
You experience a notable decline in memory for recent events and ability to converse with others
Your interpersonal social skills are at the same level as they’ve always been
You’ve lost interest in social activities and may behave in socially inappropriate ways
Causes of Dementia
In a healthy brain, mass and speed can decrease in adulthood, but this remarkable organ continues to form essential connections throughout life. Neurons eventually die and dementia can occur when the connections are lost through inflammation, illness, or injury. Although the possibility of potentially losing one’s self can be incredibly stressful, early intervention will significantly change the outcome.
In the last 20 years, the causes of dementia have been significantly demystified by scientists. Genetics can increase the risks, but scientists agree that a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors is also at work.
Dementia can be caused by:
Medical conditions that progressively attack brain cells and connections, most commonly seen in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or Huntington’s disease.
Medical conditions such as strokes that disrupt oxygen flow and rob the brain of vital nutrients. Additional strokes may be prevented by reducing high blood pressure, treating heart disease, and quitting smoking.
Poor nutrition, dehydration, and certain substances, including drugs and alcohol. Treating conditions such as insulin resistance, metabolic disorders, and vitamin deficiencies may reduce or eliminate symptoms of dementia.
Single trauma or repeated injuries to the brain. Depending on the location of the brain injury, cognitive skills and memory may be impaired.
Infection or illness that affects the central nervous system, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and HIV. Some conditions are treatable, including liver or kidney disease, depression-induced pseudo dementia, and operable brain tumors.
Types of Dementia
All dementias constitute cognitive impairment that can have an effect on everyday life. However, in order to improve care, it is necessary to recognize the particular type of dementia. More than 50 conditions involve dementia, including:
This is the most common form of dementia, which according to the Alzheimer’s Association accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all diagnosed cases. The following 10 warning signs may indicate that your dementia symptoms are the result of Alzheimer’s disease:
- Your memory loss is sufficient to disrupt your daily life. You forget things you’ve recently learned, forget important dates or events, repeatedly ask for the same information, or rely more and more on memory aides or family members.
- You’re having difficulties with problem-solving. You’re not able to follow plans, work with numbers, follow recipes, or keep track of bills.
- Having trouble completing daily tasks such as driving to a familiar place, remembering rules to a game, or completing assignments at work.
- Experiencing confusion over time or place. You lose track of dates, forget where you are or how you got there.
- Misplacing things. Putting things in strange places, being unable to retrace your steps, perhaps even accusing others of stealing.
- Developing problems with spoken or written words. You have difficulties following a conversation, often repeat yourself, struggle to find the right word, or call things by the right name.
- Having difficulty understanding visual images. Trouble reading, judging distances, colors, or contrast, or recognizing your own reflection.
- Displaying poor judgement. There’s a decline in your decision making, you’re giving away large sums of money, paying less attention to personal grooming.
- Withdrawing from work or social activities. You have trouble remembering how to complete a work project or favorite hobby, difficulty following sports, withdraw from social events.
- Exhibiting changes in mood. Becoming confused, depressed, suspicious, fearful, or anxious.
Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can help to prolong independence and is the first step towards treatment, management, and continuing to enjoy a full life.
Vascular dementia results from a series of small strokes or changes in the brain’s blood supply. A sudden onset of symptoms can indicate vascular dementia, and while it severely impacts memory and cognitive functioning, there are ways to reduce its severity.
This is a condition in which Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia occur simultaneously. The combination of the two types of dementia most commonly occurs in advanced senior years, often indicated by cardiovascular disease and dementia symptoms that get worse slowly over time.
Less common forms of dementia
Pick’s Disease affects personality, orientation and behavior. It may be more common in women and occurs at an early age.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease progresses rapidly along with mental deterioration and involuntary movements.
Huntington’s Disease is an inherited, degenerative disease. The disease causes involuntary movement and usually begins during mid-life.
Parkinson’s Disease Dementia can develop in the later stages of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the central nervous system.
Lewy Body Dementia causes symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease. People with Lewy Body dementia experience hallucinations and can become fearful.
Obtaining an early diagnosis of dementia is critical, especially if your symptoms appear suddenly. Some medications for dementia may be more beneficial if given early in the progression of the disease. Timely intervention may also help you better control symptoms and prolong your quality of life for longer.
There is no single medical test used to diagnose dementia. To make a diagnosis, your doctor will assess your memory problems, changes in thinking, behavior, and function, and conduct medical tests to rule out other conditions and drug interactions that may be causing your symptoms.
While your doctor may be able to broadly diagnose dementia, determining the specific type can sometimes be challenging. Many symptoms overlap between different types of dementia, so you may need to consult a specialist neurologist or psychologist for a full diagnosis.
Coping with diagnosis
Being diagnosed with dementia is a life-changing experience—for both you and your loved ones. It can turn your world upside down and leave you grappling with a host of conflicting emotions, from shock, anger, and grief to profound sadness and isolation. While there is currently no cure for dementia, a diagnosis doesn’t mean that your life is over. There are treatments available for the symptoms. There are also steps you can take to help slow the progression of the disease and delay the onset of more debilitating symptoms, enabling you to prolong your independence and live a rich and full life for longer.
Preventing dementia of delaying symptoms
Recent research suggests that healthy lifestyle habits and mental stimulation may help prevent dementia altogether, delay its onset, or if you’ve already been diagnosed, slow the onset of more debilitating symptoms. In fact, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2019 concluded that healthy lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of dementia even if you have a genetic predisposition. Just as physical exercise keeps you physically fit, exercising your mind and memory can help you stay mentally sharp, no matter your family history or how old you are. The following strategies can help.
- Regular exercise. Starting a regular exercise routine, including cardio and strength training, may significantly reduce your risk of developing dementia. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week.
- Social engagement. The more socially active you are, the more you connect face-to-face with others, the stronger your memory and cognition is likely to be.
- Healthy diet. Brain-healthy eating habits, such as those promoted in the Mediterranean diet, can help reduce inflammation, protect neurons, and promote better communication between brain cells. Daily servings of fruit and vegetables and weekly servings of fish may help to lower your risk for dementia
- Mental stimulation. By continuing to learn new things and challenge your brain, you can strengthen your cognitive skills, stay mentally sharp, and may delay or prevent dementia symptoms.
- Quality sleep. Getting quality sleep may help to flush out brain toxins and avoid the build-up of damaging plaques.
- Stress management. Unchecked stress takes a heavy toll on the brain, shrinking a key memory area, hampering nerve cell growth, and worsening dementia symptoms.
- Vascular health. Controlling your blood pressure, monitoring your cholesterol levels, and quitting smoking can have beneficial effects on both your heart and brain health.