What is Dementia?
An estimated 5.5 million Americans suffer from dementia. Likely, one of your relatives or someone you know has dementia. What is dementia? Dementia is a chronic disturbance in a group of mental processes. It is not a disease but rather an umbrella term that describes a combination of signs and symptoms. Dementia can be due to many different causes. It affects a person’s memory, learning, reasoning, planning, language, attention, perception, and behavior. More than 70% of those suffering from dementia also exhibit behavioral disturbances. Common behavioral disturbances include agitation, apathy, mood swings, and psychotic symptoms.
These are some early warning signs of dementia:
Memory difficulties that affect every day life
Difficulty planning or solving problems
Confusion with place and time
Difficulty with familiar tasks at home
Difficulty recalling words or following a conversation
Problems with vision or perception
Problems with judgment
Changes in personality
Social and work withdrawal
There are many different types of dementia and some patients have more than one type. Five types of dementia include:
Alzheimer’s disease. 50-70% of all cases. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Every 68 seconds, someone in America develops Alzheimer’s. The number of people with Alzheimer’s disease doubles with every five year interval beyond the age of 65. Early symptoms include apathy, depression, and difficulty remembering names and recent events. Later symptoms include impaired judgment, disorientation, confusion, behavior changes, and difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking.
Vascular dementia. 20% of all cases. A decline in thinking skills caused by conditions that block or reduce the flow of blood to the brain, depriving brain cells of vital oxygen and nutrients. This often results from a stroke or mini strokes.
Lewy body dementia. 15-20% of all cases. Similar to Alzheimer’s, those with Lewy bodies often experience memory loss and thinking problems. However, unlike Alzheimer’s, they tend to have early symptoms such as sleep disturbances, well-formed visual hallucinations, and muscle rigidity or other parkinsonian movement features.
Parkinson’s disease dementia. 5% of all cases. An early symptom of the disease is problem with movement. If dementia develops, the symptoms are similar to those with Lewy bodies.
Frontotemporal dementia. 5% of all cases. Typical symptoms include changes in behavior and personality and difficulty with language. Nerve cells in the front and side regions of the brain are especially affected.
In 60% of those with early Alzheimer’s disease, the condition is not recognized by their family or evaluated by a doctor. By the time family members notice signs of dementia, it has usually developed to a moderate stage. Dementia can be diagnosed by obtaining a thorough medical and psychiatric history. The doctor will also conduct an examination of the medical, neurological, and mental status of the patient. Neuropsychological testing may be necessary. The Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE) is one of the most common screening tools for dementia in clinical practice.
How can dementia be treated? Lifestyle modifications can help delay or prevent dementia in some people. Some lifestyle changes that can be beneficial include avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake, engaging in physical exercise, participating in mental and social activity, and doing cognitive training. Medication can improve mental processes like memory and sometimes slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Other medications can help dementia due to Parkinson’s disease or Lewy body disease. In 2012, more than 15 million family members and unpaid caregivers provided care for patients with dementia. Their contribution was valued at $216 billion.
You can find more helpful blog topics such as How to Communicate When They Have Alzheimer’s, Planning Ahead for Medicaid, and Talking to Your Parents About Assisted Living under the “Elder Law and Medicaid” tab.