Dementia: What You Need to Know

The chances are that you or someone in your life has been touched by dementia. Perhaps one of your parents or grandparents, an aunt or uncle or other family member. Or it could be that one of your friends is a caretaker for one of her relatives. Either way, the onset of dementia can be a trying experience for both the person who has the condition and the family members who care for them.

We used to think that dementia was a normal part of aging but now we know that the loss of short-term memory and other cognitive functions that accompany the condition are not a normal part of the aging process. According to the Alzheimer's Association, there are up to nine million Americans who have some form of dementia, with 60 to 80 percent of those cases due to Alzheimer's disease.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is not a disease in itself but rather is a set of symptoms that are caused by any one of a number of diseases (including Alzheimer’s), injuries and disorders that affect the brain. Dementia occurs when the nerve cells in the brain — called neurons — no longer work and die. When people lose brain function, they lose cognitive functioning and may become unable to complete everyday tasks or care for themselves. Their personality and relationships may change as well.

While the majority of dementia is due to Alzheimer's disease, not all forms of dementia are caused by Alzheimer's. Some forms of dementia can be caused by infection, disorders of the immune system, reactions to medications or brain injury, for example. A person can have dementia and not have Alzheimer’s disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Dementia

There is no cure for the diseases that cause most cases of dementia. However, when dementia is detected early, successful treatment can help slow its progress and prolong a person's cognitive abilities. The signs and symptoms of dementia go beyond common “senior moments,” and include the following:

  • Memory loss, particularly a loss of short-term memory.
  • Disorientation
  • Language and/or speech deficits
  • Perception difficulty, including delusions, hallucinations, inability to recognize faces or places or other special problems
  • Common reasoning deficits, such as poor planning, judgment and problem-solving skills
  • Socially inappropriate behavior
  • Loss of empathy
  • Extreme changes in mood, behavior and personality

What Causes Dementia and Can I Help Prevent It?

According to the Alzheimer's Association, there is some agreement among physicians and scientists that dementia is likely caused by a combination of multiple factors, including age, genetics, environment, lifestyle and other medical conditions. While there is nothing you can do to change your age or genetic research, you can take steps to reduce other risk factors, such as exercising and eating a healthy diet to help reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

There also appears to be a link between serious head injuries and a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease in the future, particularly when the head injury caused a loss of consciousness. To help reduce your risk, always take the following steps:

  • Wear a seat belt and shoulder harness when you ride in a car
  • Use a helmet when you participate in sports
  • "Fall-proof" your home

There are several studies that show that maintaining strong social connections with others, and keeping yourself mentally active can help lower the risk of developing cognitive decline or Alzheimer's disease. Experts speculate that social and mental stimulation helps strengthen connections between nerve cells in the brain and delay the onset or progress of dementia. Some studies link dementia with the use of alcohol and smoking.

Treatment for Dementia

The types of treatment used to treat patients with dementia depends on whether or not the condition is considered progressive. Progressive, or degenerative dementias include diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In these cases, some drugs may temporarily improve symptoms and brain activity. However, there are currently very few effective treatments for progressive dementia.

Non-progressive, reversible dementias may be caused by infection, immune disorders, medication reactions, metabolic disorders or injuries like subdural hematoma. There are medications that may help reverse or stop these types of dementias. Vascular dementia, common after a stroke, may be treated with medication and rehabilitation. Many dementia treatments may include behavioral approaches and practicing tasks to improve cognitive function.

REFERENCES: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Alzheimer’s Association