Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process. It’s not even an actual disease.
Dementia is a collection of symptoms that interfere with everyday life, and spotting these symptoms is critical to treatment.
Dementia’s first signs are often masked in the mundane questions of everyday life: Where did I put the keys? Which faucet turns on the cold water? What day did I get married again?
Too often, those early warning signs are chalked up to busy lives or the forgetfulness that sometimes comes as we age; so detecting dementia early can be difficult.
Caused by certain diseases or conditions like Alzheimer’s that affect the brain, dementia often causes changes in personality, mood and behavior.
This can make things particularly hard on a family member providing care. Professional resources can help your loved one live safely and comfortably.
Signs and Symptoms
Dementia affects each person differently, in varying degrees and at different rates. However, if you notice one or more of the warning signs in someone you love, schedule an appointment with a doctor who can make a complete assessment.
Warning signs include:
- Forgetting things recently learned, important dates, names or other important information
- Asking the same question or repeating the same story over and over
- Getting lost in familiar places – Inability to backtrack or retrace steps
- Unable to follow directions or stay on task
- Becoming confused about time, people and places
- Neglecting personal safety, hygiene and nutrition
Types of Dementia
Dementia takes many forms, but all are caused by physical changes in the brain.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s, accounting for between 60 to 70 percent of cases, according to the World Health Organization. Alzheimer’s is a slowly progressive brain disease that begins well before symptoms emerge. It is caused by changes in certain parts of the brain that result in the death of nerve cells.
As the damage spreads through the brain, so does the severity of symptoms. People living with Alzheimer’s will eventually require total medical care.
Vascular dementia is a less common form of dementia accounting for about 10 percent of such cases, according to Alzheimer's Association. It is sometimes referred to as post-stroke dementia because it is caused by changes in the supply of blood the brain leading to death of brain tissues. Vascular dementia often strikes suddenly.
Memory, language, reasoning and coordination can be affected as well as mood and personality changes. At this time, brain damage caused by a stroke can’t be reversed but quick treatment and taking steps to prevent future strokes can minimize symptoms.
Other forms of dementia include Lewy bodies or DLB, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and Huntington's disease. The specific cause of each is different.
Know Your Risk and Reduce It
Age, family history and genetic makeup are the three most important risk factors for Alzheimer's.
Consider the following:
- Most individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are 65 and older.
- One in nine people in that age group and nearly one-third of people age 85 and older have Alzheimer’s.
- People with a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. The risk increases if multiple family members have the disease.
- Scientists have determined certain genes make some people more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. This is one risk factor and not a cause of Alzheimer’s.
- Research also indicates that older Latinos and African-Americans are more at risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementia. The reasons are still unclear.
The risk of developing dementia increases with conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, like heart disease, diabetes and stroke. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can also increase risk. Work with your doctor to manage and control these conditions.
Living with Dementia
Anyone with dementia should be under a doctor’s care. Alzheimer’s can be treated with certain medications. Those with vascular dementia should work to avoid further strokes by managing blood pressure, treating high cholesterol and diabetes and should not smoke cigarettes.
But many can live with dementia for years with help from family, friends and trained home care professionals.
These professionals are called caregivers and they’re an outstanding resource for helping loved ones who have dementia.
Caregivers can help those with dementia by ensuring they:
- Adhere to daily and weekly routines
- Continue social and physical activities
- Are kept abreast of daily details and local news
- Use memory aids like lists, simple-to-follow instructions and a calendar with daily to-do lists
Get a Memory Screening
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America provides free, confidential memory screenings throughout the U.S. on an ongoing basis. This kind of screening can help determine if someone might benefit from a comprehensive medical evaluation. Search now to see if there’s a screening site near you.