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What Is Dementia? Symptoms, Types, and Diagnosis

 

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning. Dementia can be caused by various factors and it can affect both the brain’s memory and the cognitive abilities required for speaking, understanding language, and solving problems.

 

Dementia

Symptoms and signs of dementia

• Memory loss becoming more severe over time.

• Trouble recognizing people or objects that have been familiar for a long time.

• Trouble learning new information, especially if you have had no trouble with this before.

• Problems using and understanding language. For example, being unable to find the right word for things.

• Behavior changes that are new, such as acting anxious or repeating questions over and over again.

The common types of dementia include:

Alzheimer’s disease – This is the most common cause of dementia. It accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all cases.

Vascular dementia – There are two types of this type, both caused by damage in small blood vessels in the brain.

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) - With this disorder, protein deposits called Lewy bodies build up inside nerve cells in the brain.

Frontotemporal lobe dementia (FTD) – With this type, two specific areas of the brain are affected—the frontal and temporal lobes.

What causes dementia?

Dementia can be caused by many factors, including:

Neurodegeneration—This is the natural loss of brain cells that happens with aging. It is responsible for about half of all cases of dementia.

Brain injuries—These are injuries to the head or brain, such as from a stroke or a blow to the head. They cause damage to areas in the brain that control memory and thinking skills.

Vascular conditions—These are disorders such as stroke and high blood pressure in tiny blood vessels called arteries that supply your brain with oxygen-rich blood. These conditions block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to different parts of your brain, causing cell death in those areas.

Degenerative disorders—These are conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. They cause degeneration in the brain.

Infections—Infections such as HIV or viral encephalitis can damage the brain and lead to dementia.

Dementia is diagnosed when a person has problems with memory, language, and thinking that are more severe than normal for their age group and culture.

Various tests can be done to rule out other causes of dementia symptoms, including:

• Blood tests

• Brain imaging tests

• Tests for specific infectious diseases that may cause dementia.

Diagnosis of dementia

A diagnosis can be made with a physical examination, an interview with the person’s doctor, or a review of medical records.

There are tests your doctor may order to help diagnose dementia:

• Blood test—The level of an enzyme called amyloid-β (Aβ) in the blood is higher in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The level of Aβ in people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease may also be lower than expected for their age. Researchers are trying to come up with more accurate tests for diagnosing this type of dementia.

• Brain imaging tests—These can detect Alzheimer’s disease. However, there is a lot of debate about these tests because the results can be affected by other things that are not related to Alzheimer’s, such as the person’s age, how well they remember words, and other health problems.

• Tests for other causes of dementia—Your doctor may order tests to rule out infections or other conditions that cause dementia symptoms. Your doctor may also want to do a CT scan or an MRI scan of your brain. These scans can tell your doctor if you have damage in any specific areas of your brain, but they cannot determine how much damage is present.

A person may have dementia if they have problems with memory, language, and thinking that are more severe than normal for their age group and culture.

Early stage of dementia symptoms

Signs of early stage dementia include:

• Memory loss that interferes with daily life. These memory problems can affect a particular area or your whole memory. For example, you might not be able to remember things in your job or the names of people you know very well. Or, the problem might be one of concentration—such as writing a check or following a recipe.

• Changes in reasoning skills that interfere with daily tasks such as doing math or driving.

• Confusion about time, place, or situation that interferes with your ability to do things. For example, you might not know if you are at home or in the grocery store and have no idea how you got there.

• Lapses in judgment that may not seem serious to someone else but are noticeable to you and others close to you.

Who can diagnose dementia?

An internist (a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating medical problems that affect the whole body) or a geriatrician (a doctor who works with older people) can diagnose dementia.

Other professionals who can diagnose dementia are clinical neuropsychologists, neurologists, hematologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. These professionals may use different tests in their diagnosis. If you have questions about which kind of professional is best for you, talk to your doctor.

Dementia treatment

The most important thing to know about treatment is that there is no cure for dementia. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms and help the person continue to live as actively as possible.

Be in charge of your own care. If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with dementia, use this information as a starting point for learning about options for dealing with this condition. Be patient with yourself; you are facing some tough challenges and decisions, but asking questions and learning about the different treatments may help ease your feelings at this time.

• Take care of yourself—Eat right, exercise regularly, stay social, get enough rest, and practice stress management techniques such as yoga or tai chi.

• Find support—Spend time with friends and family. Join a support group for people with dementia, or help start one if there is not currently one available in your community.

• Learn all you can about the condition—Participate in research studies and clinical trials, or learn from family members and caregivers of people who have the condition.

• Manage medications—Take medications as prescribed (see page 8 for more about medications). Remember that you are not alone; help is available.

• Make the most of your ability to think, remember, and do everyday tasks—Schedule your day in a way that makes sense for you. Work with your doctor or caregiver to find things you can still do.

• Find a financial planner or other professional who is knowledgeable about managing money and finances for people with dementia. Early planning will make a big difference in the quality of life for both you and your family later on, as well as ease future financial pressures on them.

• Consider hospice care—You may not have the strength to maintain the same level of care you got in the past, so you may need help from others.

Dementia risk and prevention

You can reduce your risk of developing dementia by staying healthy, keeping active, avoiding bad habits, and making good lifestyle choices. However, there is no known way to prevent dementia from developing.

Staying healthy

Some things you can do for yourself to stay healthy include:

• Be sure to eat a regular diet with a variety of foods.

• Exercise regularly—at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day (see page 6 for more info about exercise).

• Stay socially engaged—People who stay connected to friends and family tend to be happier and healthier than those who isolate themselves from others.

• Avoid harmful drugs or alcohol—These may make it harder for your brain functions to work normally.

Keeping active

Some things you can do for yourself to stay active include:

• Do regular physical activity—physical activity has been shown to have a positive effect on mental functioning. For example, regular exercise helps control weight, lowers blood pressure, and has a generally positive effect on mood and attitude.

• Be creative—Creative expression can be good for both body and mind. Try different kinds of crafts or art (see page 6 for more suggestions about arts and crafts).

• Engage in stimulating activities—Try new things every few weeks, such as joining a new sports team or hobby class.

Avoiding bad habits

Some things you can do for yourself to avoid bad habits include:

• Take regular breaks from work and school—Your brain will function better if you take a break from the same task every 30 minutes or so.

• Go for regular walks—Regular exercise has been shown to help people maintain their mental abilities. To get started, walk briskly for at least 10 minutes daily (see page 6 for more info about walking).

• Take time off work—Even a short break over the course of the day can help improve learning and memory tasks.

• Eat a healthy diet—A healthy diet helps maintain brain function, balance weight, and also helps control blood pressure—all of which are important to keeping your brain healthy.

• Don't drink alcohol—Drinking too much alcohol can cause problems with thinking, memory, and more.

Making good lifestyle choices

Some things you can do for yourself to make good lifestyle choices include:

• Maintain a healthy weight throughout your life. Keep track of your weight periodically to help make sure you are maintaining a proper weight.

• Manage stress—If stress is a problem in your life, talk to your doctor or counselor about how you can manage it better.

• Avoid injuries or other traumatic events—If you do have an injury or one of these events, follow your doctor's advice for recovery and rehabilitation.

• Stay socially connected to friends and family.

• Practice good hygiene—Follow your doctor's recommendations about dental care, foot care, and other aspects of personal hygiene.

 

Sources:

• Alzheimer’s Association

• Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center (ADEAR)

• National Institute on Aging (NIA)

 

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