Dementia: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments
Nearly 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and more than 5 million of them are in the United States. The number of people with dementia in the U.S. is projected to grow to as many as 14 million by 2050. This condition doesn’t only affect the quality of life for those who have it – as well as their families and caregivers – but it also has a significant economic impact. It’s estimated that the cost of dementia care will total more than $300 billion in 2020. No cure exists yet, unfortunately, but there are ways to ease its symptoms.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia isn’t one type of disease. It’s a term that includes many different diseases that affect memory, cognitive abilities and decision making. Many of the diseases are progressive, meaning that they worsen over time. Eventually, they interfere with a person’s ability to perform the simplest everyday tasks.
Diseases grouped under the term “dementia” are caused by abnormal changes in the brain. These changes lead to a decline in a person’s cognitive functioning. Along with affecting the ability to complete familiar tasks, these diseases may trigger changes to a person’s moods or personality.
Dementia frequently occurs in adults over the age of 65. Even so, many people live well into their 90s without ever developing it. Some cognitive changes are normal as a person advances in their years. It’s not uncommon for people of any age to occasionally forget where they set something down or forget a person’s name that they just met. Even more significant memory loss alone doesn’t necessarily mean a person has dementia.
Symptoms of Dementia
Different types of dementia create different effects. As such, dementia symptoms vary from one person to the next, depending upon the type of disease they have and the stage of dementia they’re in. Some of the early signs of dementia include:
Changes to short-term memory: One of the most common signs of dementia is memory problems. In the earliest stages, these problems might be subtle. A person may remember something from 30 years ago, but not what happened earlier in the day. They may also forget where they placed something or that they had an appointment on a certain day.
Becoming confused more easily: Confusion is another common early sign of dementia. A person might forget faces they’ve seen before, what day it is or find the words they need to describe an object.
Repetitive behaviors: As a result of memory loss, a person with dementia may start doing or saying things repetitively.
Having trouble with regular daily tasks: A person in the early stages of dementia might experience difficulty with complex tasks that they typically performed with ease, such as balancing their checkbook or playing a game with several rules. They might also have trouble learning something new.
Difficulty finding the right words: Conversations can become more difficult for a person with dementia. As their memory starts to deteriorate, they may begin to forget words. They might stumble trying to describe their feelings or an object, or they may describe an object or emotion because they can’t remember the actual word.
Shifting moods: It’s not uncommon for people with dementia to experience significant shifts in their mood or personality. Depression is a common early sign.
Other dementia symptoms include:
- Difficulty with reasoning or problem-solving
- Visual and spatial awareness trouble
- Problems with coordination or motor skills
Types of Dementia
As mentioned above, dementia doesn’t refer to one specific type of disease. It’s a term that refers to multiple diseases, all of which affect memory and cognitive abilities. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common forms.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and accounts for 60% to 80% of the cases. It’s also one of the top ten causes of death in the United States. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that worsens over time. While the exact cause is unknown, it develops as a result of amyloid plaques accumulating on the brain. These plaques interfere with neuron communication, leading to cell and brain tissue death.
Vascular dementia refers to cognitive decline due to conditions that block or impede blood flow to the brain. As such, the brain is deprived of vital oxygen and nutrients. It’s the second most common form of dementia in the U.S. Any condition that damages blood vessels can lead to changes in the brain. Like other forms of dementia, age is among the top risk factors. Other conditions, like heart disease and stroke, may also increase a person’s risk. The most common symptoms include slowed thinking and difficulty with problem-solving skills.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy body dementia is also called dementia with Lewy bodies. Lewy bodies are protein deposits that develop in nerve cells in the regions of the brain responsible for memory and thinking. Like Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia leads to a progressive decline in mental abilities. Symptoms include hallucinations and acting out dreams while sleeping. People with this form of dementia may also develop tremors or become uncoordinated.
Huntington’s disease is a rare type of genetic disease. It causes the gradual degeneration of nerve cells in the brain, affecting a person’s cognitive abilities and motor skills. The disease can develop at any time, but symptoms often begin appearing in a person as early as their thirties or forties. For some, it can develop in their twenties, which is referred to as juvenile Huntington’s. The disease causes physical, cognitive and psychological changes.
Parkinson’s disease is another progressive disease. It affects the nervous system, thereby affecting a person’s movements. The symptoms are subtle and first, and most people might not even notice them. While tremors are common, people may also experience stiffness or slowed movements. Symptoms vary from one person to the next, but they might include tremors, loss of automatic movements, slurred speech and changes in handwriting. Another marker of Parkinson’s is the presence of Lewy bodies in the brain.
Mixed dementia is a type of dementia in which two or more types of dementia occur at the same time. For instance, the amyloid deposits associated with Alzheimer’s may exist along with blood vessel issues associated with vascular dementia. The symptoms of mixed dementia vary greatly from one person to the next, depending upon the types of dementia they have.
Stages/Progression of Dementia
Dementia progresses differently for each person, and the progression will depend upon the type of dementia a person has. Some use a three-stage model to describe dementia progression, while others use a seven-stage model.
In the three-stage model, dementia progression is as follows:
Mild (Early-Stage): A person with mild dementia may still function normally, but they begin to exhibit signs of memory impairment that interfere with daily life. They might experience short-term memory loss, become lost in familiar places or have trouble expressing their thoughts.
Moderate (Middle-Stage): With moderate dementia, a person begins to have greater difficulty performing daily activities. They begin to need help with such activities as getting dressed, bathing and managing personal grooming. Memory loss becomes more severe as they begin to forget older memories. A person may also develop more significant personality or behavioral changes.
Severe (Late-Stage): In the severe stage of dementia, a person experiences a further decline in mental and physical abilities. They might lose the ability to communicate their needs (even if they can still speak), lose the ability to walk or feed themselves, and need round-the-clock care.
In the seven-stage model, dementia stages are as follows:
- No impairment
- Very mild decline
- Mild decline
- Moderate decline
- Moderately severe decline
- Severe decline
- Very severe decline
In the earliest stage of this model, a person might not have any noticeable symptoms of dementia. Tests, however, may reveal an underlying condition. At the latest stage, people with dementia can no longer vocalize their thoughts and will require constant help.
Causes and Risk Factors
The causes of dementia vary depending upon the type a person has. It generally occurs as a result of damage to a person’s brain cells. The damage affects the ability of these cells to function properly, which affects thinking and feelings.
The brain has several regions, each of which is responsible for different functions. Different forms of dementia are linked to different types of brain cell damage in particular areas of the brain. When it comes to Alzheimer’s, for example, high levels of amyloid proteins damage cells, interfering with their communication. Eventually, the cells die, as does brain tissue. With vascular dementia, on the other hand, the damage to a person’s brain cells occurs as a result of poor or blocked blood flow, which deprives the brain of oxygen and nutrients.
While dementia can affect anyone, certain factors can increase a person’s risk of developing it. Some of the most common risk factors include:
Age: In general, the risk of developing dementia is highest in people over the age of 65. Even so, it can still affect those under 65. For instance, Huntington’s disease often develops in a person in their thirties to forties.
Family history: A person with a parent or sibling who has dementia has a higher risk of developing it.
Traumatic brain injury: A person who experiences a traumatic brain injury has a greater risk of developing dementia, especially if the injury was severe.
Poor overall health: A person who has risk factors for heart disease (such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol), smokes, drinks excessively or has uncontrolled type 2 diabetes is at greater risk.
Lack of social engagement: Several studies show the importance of maintaining an active, healthy social life. Those who do have a much lower risk of developing dementia than those who become withdrawn or depressed.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosing dementia requires a healthcare professional. A doctor first needs to rule out underlying conditions that may be causing cognitive impairment, such as poor thyroid function or vitamin deficiencies.
To diagnose dementia, a doctor typically starts with a general assessment. They may:
- Review a person’s medical history
- Perform a physical exam
- Conduct neurological tests
- Order lab work or brain scans
All of these tests can help to identify an underlying cause. A family doctor may be able to diagnose dementia, but not the exact type. An appointment with a specialist may also be necessary.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia. Scientists are, however, working to find one. In the meantime, treatments are available to slow the progression of the symptoms and make them more bearable. They can also help preserve cognition longer.
The exact treatment a doctor prescribes depends upon the type of dementia a person has. In general, these treatments might include:
- Medications to boost chemical messaging in the brain
- Medications to treat symptoms such as depression, anxiety or sleep issues
- Occupational therapy
- Participating in activities
- Establishing a bedtime routine
Again, these treatments won’t eliminate the diseases listed under dementia, but they can make them easier to manage.
Dementia Care Options
When it comes to dementia care, there are several options. One common option is for family members to provide in-home help. A family member may move in with them, or they may move into a family member’s home. With this option, the person is able to stay in familiar surroundings with familiar faces.
Another option is to hire in-home assistance. A family member may do this in conjunction with providing help themselves, or they may hire help because they can’t be there to provide the assistance needed.
There are several types of in-home care services. Some provide help with daily living activities such as cooking and cleaning, while others provide medical assistance from a licensed medical professional.
A third option is to move to an assisted living and memory care community such as The Atrium at Boca Raton. Such communities provide individuals with dementia a safe, supportive environment to refocus their abilities and build a full life, helping them to improve their wellness and build strong relationships.
Memory Care at The Atrium at Boca Raton
The Atrium at Boca Raton provides programs for all community residents, including those with dementia. Each program incorporates the Valeo wellness philosophy, which emphasizes the use of holistic care to improve overall wellness. We tailor every program to each individual resident, helping them to improve their cognition and make new, wonderful memories.