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Understanding Dementia

Dementia is the name for a group of brain conditions that make it harder to remember, reason, and communicate. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Other types include vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy body dementia. Years ago, dementia was often called “senility.” It was even thought to be a normal part of aging. We now know that it’s not normal. It’s caused by ongoing damage to cells in the brain.

Symptoms of dementia

Symptoms differ depending on which parts of the brain are affected and the stage of the disease. The most common symptoms include:

  • Memory loss, including trouble with directions and familiar tasks

  • Language problems, such as trouble getting words out or understanding what is said

  • Difficulty with planning, organizing, concentration, and judgment. This includes people not being able to recognize their own symptoms.

  • Changes in behavior and personality

Types and causes of dementia

Cross section of the brain showing normal cells and cells affected by Alzheimer's disease

Dementia has many types and causes. In some cases, the main causes can be treated. In other cases, the dementia is part of how a disease progresses.

Some of the most common types and causes of dementia are:

  • Alzheimer’s disease. This is a series of changes to nerve cells of the brain that happens most commonly in older adults. It is the most common cause of dementia in older adults.

  • Vascular dementia. A stroke or series of strokes can cause brain damage that leads to dementia.

  • Abnormal proteins in the brain. Abnormal proteins called Lewy bodies can build up in certain parts of the brain and cause damage. The related diseases are called dementia with Lewy bodies and Parkinson disease dementia.

  • Frontotemporal dementia. This type of dementia happens when there is damage to the parts of the brain known as the frontal and temporal lobes. The related diseases are called Pick’s disease, corticobasal degeneration, and primary progressive aphasia.

  • Other causes. Low levels of vitamins B1 or B12, thyroid problems, and problems with blood sugar, calcium, or sodium levels in the body can cause symptoms of dementia. Many of these causes can be treated and the symptoms of dementia can get better.

How dementia affects the brain

The brain controls all the workings of the mind and body. Some parts of the brain control memory and language. Other parts control movement and coordination. With dementia, nerve cells in the brain are gradually damaged or destroyed. Why this occurs is not yet clear. But over time, parts of the brain begin to shrink (atrophy). Brain atrophy often starts in the part of the brain that controls memory, reasoning, and personality. Other parts of the brain may not be affected until much later in the illness.

The stages of dementia

Dementia is a progressive disease. This means it gets worse over time. Symptoms differ for each person, but there are three basic stages. Each may last from months to years.

  • Early stage. A person may seem forgetful, confused, or have changes in behavior. However, they may still be able to handle most tasks without help.

  • Middle stage. More and more help is needed with daily tasks. A person may have trouble recognizing friends and family members, wander, or get lost in familiar places. They may also become restless or moody.

  • Late stage. Late stage dementia can cause severe problems with memory, judgment, and other skills. Help is needed with nearly every aspect of daily life.

Signs of dementia

The signs can vary depending on the type and cause of the dementia. Some of the signs include:

  • Changes in mood and personality

  • Mild memory loss and confusion

  • Not being able to follow instructions

  • Asking the same questions over and over

  • Getting lost in places the person knows well

  • Misplacing things in odd places

  • Trouble finding the right words or having a fluid conversation

Treating dementia

Right now, dementia has no cure. But with proper care, many people can live well for years.

  • Activity and exercise. Both are good for body and mind. Simple, repetitive activities are good choices. Continue to enjoy relationships with family and friends, hobbies, and outings.

  • Regular healthcare provider visits. This will help keep track of and support management of symptoms and overall health.

  • Medicines. They can help manage some symptoms, such as memory loss. But they can also cause side effects that some people can’t tolerate.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 6/1/2020
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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