Dementia is a broad term referring to the decline of intellectual abilities that hinder a person’s ability to function in their everyday life. Dementia can present itself in various forms, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.
It’s important to understand that not everyone who suffers from memory loss has dementia. If you or someone you love is exhibiting symptoms such as impaired spatial and motor skills, language, judgment attention, memory, functioning and orientation, make an appointment with a doctor for an evaluation.
If you are concerned about your family member or friend and whether they may have dementia or regular memory loss, the following information may help you understand dementia better.
The term dementia does not refer to a specific disease. Instead, it refers to a variety of symptoms that occur in addition to impaired cognitive skills impacting a person’s daily life. A common misconception of dementia is that it is an expected result of aging. This is not the case, and losing mental functioning is not something people should expect to happen because of getting older.
The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which makes up 60 to 80 percent of cases. Vascular dementia can result from a stroke, which is the second-leading cause of dementia, but additional causes can contribute to this condition.
When a doctor evaluates an individual who may have dementia, they will look for at least two or more primary symptoms. These symptoms include:
- Language abilities
- Judgment and reasoning
- Focus and attention
- Visual perception
There are some types of dementia that progress over time. A person who is exhibiting signs of altered thinking abilities should make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible.
Signs and symptoms of dementia will present themselves in different ways depending on the type a person has. Oftentimes, a person with dementia will struggle with focusing, attention, judgment, reasoning, memory and more.
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that progresses over time. In 2011, guidelines for diagnosing Alzheimer’s were changed to explain that it is a progressive brain disease. Oftentimes, the disease begins well before symptoms are noticeable.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Second to Alzheimer’s is Vascular dementia, which is linked to strokes and damage to blood vessels.
There are a variety of other conditions that can influence the onset of dementia, including thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies. However, these can be reversed with treatment.
Injury to the brain, alcoholism, meningitis, hypothyroidism, syphilis and Pick’s disease are additional causes.
The majority of dementia cases are irreversible. However, if a treatable, underlying medical condition has led to dementia, some or all mental functioning lost can be restored.
All dementia cases are caused from damage to brain cells. This damage leads to brain cells struggling to communicate with each other, leading to abnormal behavior and reasoning.
A person’s brain is composed of different regions, all with a different responsibility. When brain cells become damaged in a specific region of the brain, the responsibility of that region is impacted.
The type of dementia a person has will determine what area of the brain is affected. For example, Alzheimer’s disease leads to increased protein levels outside and inside of brain cells related to health, and impact normal cellular communication. This type of dementia is correlated to damage of the hippocampus brain region, which is responsible for memory and learning.
Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Dementia
Memory and thinking problems associated with dementia can improve when caused by certain conditions including thyroid problems, depression, alcohol abuse and medicine side effects.
It’s important to seek medical treatment from a professional if you or a family member are dealing with shifts in thinking or behavior. Typically, dementia slowly progresses over time.
Early diagnosis of dementia can help determine if a treatable medical condition is causing dementia symptoms. When caught early, a person can be provided a range of treatment options, including participation in clinical trials, when deemed appropriate.
Dementia cannot be diagnosed with a single test. Instead a doctor will perform and review lab tests, physical examinations, medical history and symptoms to come to a diagnosis. In some cases, a medical professional will be able to diagnose dementia, but not a specific type.
For types of dementia that cannot be cured, the goal is to slow the progression of the disease by lessening symptoms. However, in all cases the treatment for dementia will depend on the type and cause. Treatment methods for certain causes include, but are not limited to:
- Depression medication
- Thyroid therapy, if diagnosed with hypothyroidism
- Removal of a brain tumor
- Medications to treat an infection
- Ending medication that causes confusion/disorientation
Risk & Prevention
Two aspects that raise a person’s chances of developing dementia are age and genetics. Unfortunately, these two factors cannot be reversed. Cardiovascular function can also play a role in developing the disease.
Dementia research continues to evolve and has revealed methods to help prevent the disease. One option includes regularly engaging in physical activity. Exercise is related to improved oxygen and blood flow to the brain. Healthy eating is an additional way to prevent dementia and promote brain health. Specifically, the Mediterranean diet, which involves eating minimal red meat and focuses heavily on the intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and shellfish, is thought to be beneficial in preventing dementia.
Types of Dementia
Understanding the different types, symptoms and possible treatments for dementia is important to help a family member living with the illness. Below is a brief summary of the different forms of dementia to help as you explore care options.
1. Alzheimer’s Disease
The most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all cases. It is a progressive disease that worsens over the years and there is currently no cure. Alzheimer’s occurs when nerve cells in the brain are damaged or die. Early in the disease, symptoms include memory problems and apathy. As the disease progresses, symptoms will become more apparent and include impaired communication, trouble speaking, confusion and poor judgment.
2. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease
Worldwide, one in one million people are diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) each year. It is extremely rare, and can affect humans as well as other mammals. CJD is caused when proteins found in a person’s body, called prion, “misfold”. This leads to a domino effect of damage in an individual’s brain. Symptoms of this condition include behavior changes, twitching and deterioration of coordination and memory. Oftentimes, these symptoms rapidly progress. In the United States, 5 to 10 percent of CJD cases are hereditary.
3. Dementia with Lewy Bodies
It is believed that dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is the third leading cause of dementia, accounting for between 10 to 25 percent of cases. Lewy bodies are abnormal proteins that form in the brain’s cortex, and result in changes to the brain. Some symptoms of DLB include visual hallucinations, sleep disturbances, delusions and confusion. The presence of Lewy bodies can also cause other types of dementia and brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
4. Frontotemporal Dementia
This type of dementia results in damage to the brains nerve cells, which leads to loss of certain functions. Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) can be caused by different variations of dementia, such as Pick’s disease and primary progressive aphasia. A person with FTD may exhibit changes in behavior, personality and language. Unlike other forms of dementia, people with FTD often show symptoms around the age of 60.
5. Huntington’s Disease
A hereditary brain disorder, Huntington’s disease causes brain cells to deteriorate, impacting the mind, body and emotions. This form of dementia typically progresses over a decade or more, and appears in middle-aged individuals. Early in the disease, symptoms include depression, difficulty composing thoughts, trouble balancing and irritability. As time goes on, symptoms include emotional changes, falling and trouble speaking. Individuals with Huntington’s disease will eventually lose the ability to walk and speak.
6. Mild Cognitive Impairment
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) causes mild deterioration of memory and mental operation. Overtime, an individual with this disorder may experience symptoms that progress, improve or remain stable. An individual with MCI has a higher risk of developing other forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms of MCI include, but are not limited to, apathy, irritability, forgetfulness or feeling overwhelmed.
7. Mixed Dementia
Mixed dementia results when a person suffers from brain abnormalities related to more than one type of dementia. Symptoms of this condition vary, and are often similar to those of Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies. As scientists learn more about mixed dementia, it is believed the disorder is more common than originally thought.
8. Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH) occurs when there is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid. This leads to enlarged ventricles in an individual’s brain. A surgeon may be able to correct NPH by draining excess fluid. It is common for spinal taps to not show abnormal pressure, even with the presence of fluid. Despite this, the excess fluid that causes enlarged brain chambers can damage nearby tissue, leading to NPH. Symptoms of this form of dementia include trouble walking and thinking, as well as loss of bladder control. NPH typically affects people in their 60s and 70s.
9. Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
Individuals with Parkinson’s disease may eventually develop Parkinson’s disease dementia; which has similar symptoms of dementia with Lewy bodies. This form of dementia results when nerve cells are affected by deep-brain changes. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, changes in memory, delusions, anxiety and sleep problems.
10. Posterior Cortical Atrophy
Posterior Cortical Atrophy is a rare and degenerative disorder that affects an individual’s brain and nervous system. Symptoms of this condition include trouble completing visual tasks and hallucinations. Memory is typically impacted as the disease progresses. Posterior cortical atrophy is associated with other brain conditions as well as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies. Because this disorder often impacts a person’s vision, misdiagnosis is common.
11. Vascular Dementia
The second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia can result from strokes that block blood vessels in a person’s brain. Symptoms of this condition include confusion, difficulty understanding and vision and speaking problems. If an individual has suffered from multiple small strokes symptoms may slowly occur and progressively worsen as damage occurs.
Our dedicated team at The Brielle understands the importance of providing superior memory care in Staten Island to individuals with dementia-related issues. Our goal is to ensure the highest quality of life for residents with memory impairments, by focusing on whole-person wellness. We invite you to contact us and download our memory care guidebook to learn more about what our community offers.