Dementia itself is not a specific medical condition. Instead, it is a term used to describe a decline in intellectual abilities including memory and thinking. Dementia is different from an occasional lapse in memory, such as forgetting where you put your keys or purse. The decline in function becomes severe enough to interfere with daily life. It’s important to understand that dementia is not considered a normal part of aging.
Symptoms of Dementia
Symptoms of dementia often start out gradually and progressively become worse. A minimum of two brain functions, such as judgement and memory, usually need to be effected before a diagnosis of dementia is made.
One of the hallmark symptoms of dementia is memory loss. Short-term memory is most commonly affected first. For example, a person with dementia may forget something they recently learned. Additional symptoms of dementia include:
- Mood changes
- Disorientation and confusion
- Communication and language problems (unable to find right words)
- Poor judgement
- Visual perception changes
- Difficulty concentrating and reasoning
- A decrease in the ability to do simple tasks, such as follow a recipe or balance a checkbook.
- Getting lost in familiar places
As the condition progresses, some people with dementia also develop paranoia, aggression and other symptoms of psychosis (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there). The disease may also gradually impair their ability to eat, bathe, dress, walk and care for themselves. And finally it may impact bowel and bladder control.
Forms of Dementia
Regardless of the type of dementia a person has, it occurs due to physical changes within the brain. There are different types of dementia that are classified in part by which part of the brain is affected, whether symptoms are progressive and the cause of damaged brain cells. Below are some types of dementia.
- Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s is by far the most common condition that leads to dementia. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s is not fully understood. One theory is that plaque may buildup in the brain, which over time leads to the death of brain cells.
- Vascular dementia: Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia. It most commonly occurs as the result of a stroke or “mini” strokes, which causes damage to brain tissue.
- Dementia with Lewy bodies: This form of dementia is considered uncommon and occurs due to an increase in a specific type of protein in the brain, which leads to a degeneration of brain cells.
- Parkinson’s dementia: Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, which can cause changes in brain tissues, which results in dementia symptoms.
There is also increasing research that indicates symptoms of dementia can also develop in people who have suffered a head injury. Repeated head trauma, such as the type that may occur from contact sports, may lead to microscopic bleeding and brain damage causing dementia symptoms.
It’s important to seek medical care if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of dementia. Certain medical conditions, such as thyroid problems and brain tumors, can cause some symptoms similar to dementia. Additionally, if a decline in mental functioning is due to dementia, the sooner a diagnosis is made, the quicker treatment can start.
To diagnose dementia, your doctor may perform certain tests, such as blood work and a brain CT to rule out other conditions. The tests that are most useful are the ones that look at how you answer questions and do certain tasks. Neuropsychological and cognitive tests are also performed to test language skills, memory, thinking, reasoning and attention.
Treatment for Dementia
Although there is currently no cure for dementia, there are treatments that may slow the progression of symptoms and improve quality of life. Treatment may also depend on which form of dementia a person has. For example, medications called cholinesterase inhibitors are sometimes prescribed for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The medication works by increasing levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which play a role in memory and judgement. Blood pressure and cholesterol control are helpful to minimize progression of vascular dementia.
Medication may also be prescribed to treat specific symptoms of dementia, such as sleep disturbances and anxiety or depression. Occupational and physical therapy may also be helpful for some people with dementia. Therapists may help people with dementia modify their home and develop ways to adapt daily activities to deal with the changes their conditions has caused.
Living with Dementia
Living with dementia is not only a challenge for the person suffering from the condition but for caregivers and loved ones as well. But there are things to keep in mind that can help someone with dementia have the best quality of life possible.
Remain active: As dementia progresses, it can be increasingly difficult to participate in all the activities a person once did. But remaining as active as possible, for as long as possible is good for the mind, body and sprint.
Staying safe: It’s helpful for loved ones to create an environment to limit distracting noise, reduce falling hazards and minimize clutter. Simple changes may help someone with dementia focus better and decrease confusion and the chance of injuries. For example, consider using non-slip backing on rugs to decrease falls. Also, use visual aids as reminders of things needed to do. Keep essentials, such as your wallet and glasses in one place to make them easy to find.