Dementia is a broad term that refers to a decline in a person’s intellectual abilities. It effects more than 3 million people each year in the United States alone. While there are many types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is most common.
Oftentimes, dementia is associated with memory loss. However, not everyone with memory loss will experience this. To be diagnosed with dementia by a medical professional, an individual must meet certain criteria. This includes, but is not limited to, impaired motor and spatial skills, judgment, memory, attention, functioning and orientation.
If you have a family member with dementia, here are some important things to know.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is not a specific disease. Rather, it is a variety of symptoms that occur in addition to memory and cognitive reduction that impacts an individual’s daily functioning. It is important to note that dementia is not the same as “senility,” or the physical decline associated with aging. Losing mental functioning is not an expected or normal aspect of growing older.
Alzheimer’s disease constitutes for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases, making it the most common. Vascular dementia, which can be caused by a stroke, is the second most common form of this condition.
For a doctor to medically diagnose an individual with dementia, two or more of the following functions must be negatively impacted in a person’s everyday life.
- Focus and attention
- Visual perception
- Judgment and reasoning
- Language and communication skills
Short-term memory recall may present a challenge for people with dementia, such as having trouble locating personal belongings, difficulty completing household tasks like cooking dinner or getting to appointments outside of the neighborhood.
It’s important to understand that some types of dementia are progressive, meaning symptoms will worsen over time. This is why it’s critical to see a doctor as soon as possible for proper diagnosis, treatment and management of the disorder.
Symptoms of Dementia
While dementia symptoms typically involve difficulty with language, communication, reasoning, visual perception and more, it is not a one-size-fits-all disorder. This means that signs can vary between individuals and based on the form of dementia a person has.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s, which is a progressive disease. It causes changes to a person’s thinking, memory and behavior. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s may begin long before any changes are noticeable. Over time, symptoms become more serious and affect a person’s ability to complete daily activities.
Difficulty remembering names and events are early signs of the disease, as well as depression. As the disease progresses, symptoms may become more obvious. These include difficulty speaking, changes in behavior, poor judgment and lessened communication.
Causes of Dementia
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, followed by strokes, which can cause vascular dementia. There are a variety of other symptoms that can lead to the development of dementia. Some possible causes, such as vitamin deficiency or thyroid problems, can be reversed with treatment. If there is an underlying medical condition responsible for dementia development, some or all mental functioning affected may be restored. However, in many cases, dementia, and the symptoms associated with it, cannot be reversed.
Additional causes of dementia include alcoholism, meningitis, AIDS, brain tumors, brain injuries, Pick’s disease and more. While there are a variety of circumstances that can lead to dementia, all forms of the condition cause damage to brain cells. This leads to brain cells struggling to communicate with each other, leading to abnormal behavior. The brain is made up of different regions, each with its own responsibility. When damage happens to cells in a specific region, the functionality that that region is in charge of is compromised.
Diagnosis, Treatment and Care of Dementia
Conditions that cause dementia, such a vitamin deficiencies, depression and medication side effects, can improve with treatment. One important aspect of dementia is that early diagnosis is crucial. Many forms of dementia are progressive, and when a person is diagnosed early they can take advantage of current treatment opportunities, including clinical trials, if appropriate.
There is no individual test to diagnose dementia. A medical professional will utilize physical exams, lab tests, medical history and symptoms to detect the presence of the disorder. In addition, your doctor may be able to diagnose dementia but unable to diagnose a specific form. In these situations, an individual may be referred to a neurologist for diagnosis.
Treatment will vary based on the type of dementia a person has. For progressive types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, the goal of treatment is to slow and lessen symptoms.
Treatment methods include:
- Thyroid therapy in the case of hypothyroidism
- Depression medication
- Stopping medication that could contribute to confusion
- Surgery to remove a brain tumor
Risk and Prevention of Dementia
Cardiovascular function, age and genetics are three factors that play a role in dementia development. In addition, damaged blood vessels in a person’s body can cause damage to vessels in the brain. This can steal nourishment and oxygen from brain cells, which has been linked to vascular dementia.
As research evolves, new types of risk factors, as well as methods for preventing dementia, are being discovered. Regular physical activity and eating well are two specific ways individuals can protect their brain. Medical guidelines currently recommend the Mediterranean diet, which encourages the consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and more.
Types of Dementia
If you have a family member or close friend living with dementia, it’s important to understand you are not alone. When it comes to this condition, knowing the signs, symptoms and treatment options can assist you as you discover care options. Below are the four most prevalent types of dementia.
1. Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease makes up 60 – 80 percent of all dementia cases and is the sixth leading cause of death among Americans. Damage to nerve cells in a person’s brain causes the disease. In addition, Alzheimer’s is progressive, meaning symptoms worsen over the course of years.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Trouble completing everyday tasks
- Misplacing objects
- Poor judgment
- Shifts in mood and personality
Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can help slow the condition’s progression. If you or a family member are experiencing possible symptoms of Alzheimer’s, contact a medical professional as soon as possible.
2. Vascular Dementia
Vascular dementia accounts for 10 percent of all dementia cases. This condition results when an individual suffers a stroke and blood vessels in the brain become blocked, causing damage to cells. Oftentimes, symptoms present themselves suddenly.
Symptoms of vascular dementia include:
- Difficulty understanding
- Memory loss
The goal of treatment is to prevent further brain damage. Like other forms of dementia, Vascular dementia can be managed with certain medications and therapies.
3. Dementia with Lewy Bodies
Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) occurs when abnormal proteins develop in the brain’s cortex. This form of dementia accounts for 10 to 25 percent of cases. Lewy bodies can be present in other conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Symptoms of Dementia with Lewy bodies include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Visual hallucinations
- Memory loss
- Gait imbalance
Brain changes associated with DLB can resemble Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, it is believed to be widely underdiagnosed.
4. Frontotemporal Dementia
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) occurs when there is damage to nerve cells in the brain, leading to loss of function. This form of dementia can be caused by other dementia variations such as Pick’s disease, primary progressive aphasia and more. An individual with FTD may show symptoms around the age of 60, which is younger than the onset of other types of dementia.
Symptoms of Frontotemporal dementia include:
- Personality changes
- Decreased empathy
- Compulsive behaviors
- Decreased motivation
FTD cannot be cured, but a medical professional can prescribe an individual medicine to treat symptoms.
Additional Types of Dementia
If you or a family member is exhibiting possible symptoms of dementia, seek medical attention. A doctor will be able to review your medical history and concerns to assist in a diagnosis. There are additional types of dementia that present themselves in a variety of ways. For example, mixed dementia occurs when a person has brain abnormalities linked to two or more forms of dementia. A person with mild cognitive impairment may exhibit a mild change in mental functioning, but one is typically not serious enough to interfere with daily activities.
At Gull Creek, we understand the importance of caring for those with dementia-related illnesses. Our team in Berlin, MD, specializes in memory care, and we have trained staff to cater to your family member’s specific needs. Contact us to learn more about our community or to schedule a tour.