Dementia is not a single disease. Rather, the term refers to a variety of conditions that cause cognitive decline, behavioral changes and overall loss of functionality. Eventually, dementia interferes with and finally eliminates a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Most forms of dementia are irreversible, incurable and progressive. Nearly all forms of dementia are considered terminal illnesses.
While many people use the words dementia and Alzheimer’s interchangeably, dementia is actually an umbrella term for multiple conditions, only one of which is Alzheimer’s. The widespread use of the word Alzheimer’s stems from the fact that it is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60 – 80 percent of cases. Vascular dementia is the next most common variety.
Dementia is a growing public health concern. As people are living longer lives thanks to modern medical support and contemporary standards of safety and care, diseases associated with aging are also flourishing. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 50 million people around the world live with dementia, approximately 60 percent of them in developing countries. WHO projects that another 10 million people will be diagnosed with dementia each year, with 152 million people around the world eventually living with the condition by 2050. The social, economic, psychological and physical impacts of dementia are profound and widespread.
Dementia’s early symptoms depend in part on the specific kind of dementia that is presenting. Alzheimer’s symptoms usually appear first as forgetting appointments or meetings, having problems completing familiar tasks or getting confused in familiar places. A few people show behavioral symptoms first, which can mimic the symptoms of depression, including social isolation and withdrawal. These problems extend beyond the typical changes a person might experience through the normal process of aging. For example, many older adults get annoyed when someone interferes with a routine, but a person with Alzheimer’s might become confused and disproportionately angry when one small matter goes awry.
Vascular dementia doesn’t usually reveal itself through memory problems first. In the early stages of this condition, people may act confused, have shortened attention spans or have trouble with concentration and analysis. Frontotemporal dementia begins with personality changes such as losing empathy or inhibition or acting inappropriately in social situations. Other forms of dementia may first emerge in a slow, awkward gait when walking or even with urinary incontinence.
The variety of early symptoms can make diagnosis difficult. Often, the person doesn’t even realize they have a problem and may object to seeing a physician. In other situations, the behavior changes may seem so much like depression that people seek psychiatric care instead of memory evaluation. Just as early-stage dementia can appear as some other pathology, so too can other things mimic dementia. Depression, anemia, a poor diet, vitamin deficiency, trauma, chronic alcoholism, and even infections can copy the symptoms of dementia in older individuals.
Getting an early diagnosis is critical. If you, your friend or family member is struggling with a condition that looks like dementia but isn’t, the earlier a doctor can provide assessment and treatment, the less likely the condition will intensify. If the problem does appear to be Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, an early diagnosis can help with planning for care, making financial and legal decisions and addressing unresolved relational issues. In some cases, a person may have mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to dementia, but it is a condition that can be managed.
Usually a family physician, geriatrician or neurologist diagnoses dementia. People who have concerns about their memory or behavioral changes should consult their primary care doctor first. If the physician believes something is amiss, she or he can recommend further tests or review by a specialist. No single test can determine dementia. Usually, neurologists administer a battery of cognitive tests, review brain scans and check for abnormalities in bloodwork. From this comprehensive health review, the doctor can offer a diagnosis.
Treatment & Care of Dementia
Dementia is a progressive condition that cannot be cured. People who get nearly any kind of dementia do not get better. At present, only a few causes of dementia, such as Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, can be controlled or reversed in some cases. Otherwise, a dementia diagnosis means an irrevocable decline in functionality.
Despite dementia’s bleak outlook, people who live with the condition can receive treatment and care that allows them to flourish as much as possible throughout their illness. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved medications for the treatment of dementia. These medications do not reverse, halt or slow down the progress of any disease. They may, however, relieve some of the symptoms for some people.
In general, the best treatment for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia consists of eating lots of healthy foods, exercising, taking time for social engagement, reducing stress, encouraging cognitive functions, and engaging in hobbies and activities for as long as possible. While the conditions of dementia do not necessarily slow down because of these activities, the person living with the disease can enjoy a richer, fuller experience by taking up a healthy, positive lifestyle.
The Landings at Norcross offers a memory care community that’s designed to provide the care and support your family member or friend with dementia needs. They’ll have access to expert medical care, as well as activities that celebrate their strengths, engaging intellectual stimulation and social and spiritual wellness to help keep them as active as possible. Learn more about our Valeo™ memory care here.
Types of Dementia
There are multiple types of dementia, each of which may present differently and progress at different rates. Understanding dementia types, their symptoms and treatment methods can help family members, friends and people with dementia recognize early warning signs and seek treatment.
Alzheimer’s disease is a disease that causes the brain to deteriorate over time, causing the loss of functionality. It is the most common form of dementia. Alzheimer’s is characterized by physical, cognitive, behavioral and psychological changes. The disease’s main symptoms include confusion and memory loss. People living with Alzheimer’s often have trouble recalling words, events from the past and how to do the activities of daily living. Typically, Alzheimer’s inhibits a person’s ability to create new memories, but it also removes many social inhibitions. A formerly reticent person might become intrusive, for instance, or a formerly gregarious person might turn shy and quiet. Alzheimer’s disease can also cause apathy, anger, hallucinations and paranoia. Often, symptoms worsen in the late afternoon or evening, a phenomenon known as sundowning. People with Alzheimer’s typically live 4-10 years after diagnosis, though some people live up to 20 years. Pneumonia is often a problem and is a common cause of death for individuals with Alzheimer’s.
The second most common type of dementia, vascular dementia, is caused by damage resulting from impaired blood flow to the brain, often as a result of small strokes. A person with vascular dementia usually lives about five years after the onset of symptoms, less than people with Alzheimer’s. Those with vascular dementia typically succumb to a heart attack or stroke. Because vascular dementia results from blood flow, improving cardiac health may help slow the progression of the disease and lengthen a person’s life.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy body dementia is a progressive form of dementia much like Alzheimer’s disease, and it is caused by the accumulation of abnormal protein deposits in the brain. The disease affects about 1.4 million people. Lewy body dementia presents symptoms much like Alzheimer’s, and in fact, many people with Lewy body dementia may receive an incorrect diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. One major difference between the two conditions, however, is that Lewy body dementia can reflect similar changes in the brain as Parkinson’s disease dementia, while Alzheimer’s does not. Typically, people with Lewy body dementia also experience more severe and more frequent hallucinations than people living with Alzheimer’s.
Some people experience mixed dementia, which is the name for having more than one type of dementia concurrently. This experience is not uncommon, and some research indicates that most people over age 80 experience mixed dementia. The symptoms of mixed dementia look much like those of the individual pathologies active in the brain. Treatment and prognosis are often the same as for a single form of dementia.
Once called Pick’s disease, frontotemporal dementia primarily affects the front and temporal lobes of the brain, which manage personality, behavior and language. This disease often begins earlier than other forms of dementia, generally in a person’s early 40s. It also presents different initial symptoms. Instead of being characterized by memory loss and confusion, frontotemporal dementia begins with socially inappropriate behavior, emotional indifference, radical personality changes or confused speech. Sometimes, people with frontotemporal dementia believe their problem is psychiatric or think they have Alzheimer’s disease. The condition is quite different, though, like Alzheimer’s, it eventually results in needing 24-hour care. People with this illness usually live about eight years after diagnosis.
This rare form of dementia often goes by the name “Mad Cow Disease,” although that name is not quite accurate. Only people get Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, while only bovines get Mad Cow Disease. Still, the two pathologies are related. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease shows all the clinical signs of other forms of dementia, including memory loss, hallucinations, paranoia and depression. This illness, however, also causes involuntary movements, and it progresses much more quickly than other dementias. People with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease typically live about 1-2 years after diagnosis.
Parkinson’s dementia occurs only in people who live with Parkinson’s disease, an illness that causes structural changes in the brain. These changes result in memory and motor impairments. Parkinson’s often affects problem solving, thinking, memory and other brain functions. It can also change a person’s mood. Not everyone with Parkinson’s disease gets dementia, but many people do experience cognitive decline. Those who have the disease long enough often eventually get dementia, which can also result in hallucinations, paranoia, problems sleeping and confusion, among other symptoms.
Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder. While people who have the disease were born with the gene for it, the symptoms do not emerge until adulthood. Typically, these symptoms first show up as impaired gait, jerking movements, difficulty with speech or swallowing, and cognitive and psychiatric disorders. Most people with Huntington’s disease begin to show these symptoms in their 30s or 40s. The disease worsens gradually over time. Most people with Huntington’s disease live 10-30 years after diagnosis. Unusual among dementias, Huntington’s disease does not inhibit a person’s ability to understand speech or interfere with their awareness of family and friends.
This brain disorder is caused by a lack of vitamin B-1. Most often, chronic alcoholism causes Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, although it can also be caused by a vitamin deficiency in the diet. Symptoms include changes in vision, general confusion and telling extravagant stories. Treatments may stop, delay or reverse the disease. Early treatment, however, is critical. Left untreated, the disease progresses and can be terminal.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH) is a form of dementia caused by the spinal fluid filling the brain’s ventricles in an abnormal way. Although the condition can affect people of any age, it is more common among older adults. NPH presents a triad of symptoms. First is an odd gait in which the walker appears nearly stuck to the floor. Urinary incontinence is the second symptom, followed by confusion, the third symptom. Anyone experiencing these three symptoms should request a scan for enlarged brain ventricles. NPH is one of the few forms of dementia that can be halted or even reversed. Treatment usually means surgically implanting a shunt to drain the excess spinal fluid into the abdomen.
Posterior Cortical Atrophy
Some professionals consider posterior cortical atrophy a type of Alzheimer’s, while others say it is a distinct pathology. The symptoms and pattern of damage to the brain are strikingly similar to Alzheimer’s disease, but posterior cortical atrophy occurs in a different part of the brain than Alzheimer’s disease does. Symptoms usually begin with visual hallucinations or trouble seeing to do visual tasks such as reading or spelling. Memory loss usually doesn’t occur until much later in the disease’s progress.
Living with Dementia
While a diagnosis of any form of dementia can produce a host of feelings from relief to shock, living with dementia does not have to be an isolating experience. People with dementia can live flourishing, happy lives when provided with excellent nutrition, beautiful surroundings and opportunities to exercise and use their brains. While dementia may change a person’s behavior and affect their memories, dementia does not alter the robust spirit of the person locked inside the condition.
At The Landings at Norcross, you’ll find senior living near Atlanta that is committed to providing compassionate, highly-skilled memory care in a secure, family-oriented environment. Our trained and caring team takes the time to get to know you as an individual – your history, your passions and your abilities. Programs and services are tailored to provide support that will empower you to meet your personal goals for wellness and engaged living.