What You Need to Know About Dementia

What You Need to Know About Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease, head trauma and chronic alcohol and drug use are among the causes.

What is dementia?
Dementia isn’t one disease; it’s a state of overall mental decline that can result from a number of conditions. Dementia involves two or more problems with thinking, such as memory loss and confusion beyond the occasional forgetfulness expected with aging. Its symptoms usually get worse over time, and many of the conditions that cause it cannot be reversed. Eventually, dementia may interfere with your ability to perform basic tasks and take care of yourself.

What causes dementia?
Numerous illnesses and injuries can cause dementia. The most common is Alzheimer’s disease, which involves nerve cell damage and the buildup of protein clumps, called “plaques” and “tangles,” in the brain. Scientists believe those protein clumps keep your brain cells from communicating with each other, as well as your body. That interferes with your ability to think clearly, remember things and complete everyday activities.

Vascular problems can also contribute to dementia (called vascular dementia). This happens when blood and oxygen flow to the brain are limited due to issues like stroke or the buildup of cholesterol plaque. When brain tissues are starved of oxygen, they can become damaged or destroyed.

Other causes of dementia include:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Head trauma
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Late-stage AIDS
  • Chronic alcohol or drug use
  • Huntington’s disease

It’s also possible to have a mixed form of dementia, in which more than one condition contributes to your symptoms at the same time.

Dementia symptoms
Symptoms vary according to the reason behind your dementia, but may include:

  • Memory loss
  • Poor judgment
  • Difficulty remembering words
  • A hard time completing tasks with multiple steps
  • Problems managing money

As your disease advances, you may experience hallucinations, delusions or trouble with daily activities like bathing and dressing. The later phases of dementia can involve the loss of certain bodily functions like walking, bowel and bladder control, facial expressions and speech.

If you have a family history of dementia and risk factors like obesity, high cholesterol or high blood pressure by middle age, let your healthcare provider (HCP) know so they can start screenings early enough.

Diagnosing dementia
Once symptoms appear, your HCP will begin monitoring your reasoning abilities and memory skills using a series of cognitive tests. Repeating those tests over time can help determine whether your symptoms are worsening. If symptoms stay the same, you may be experiencing normal brain changes related to aging. If symptoms get worse, your HCP will perform more tests to give you a final diagnosis. Medical tests can include:

  • A CT or MRI head scan, which can show physical changes in the brain
  • Blood tests, which can reveal conditions that might be causing symptoms instead of dementia, like diabetes or a thyroid problem 
  • An electroencephalogram (EEG), which looks at brain activity

Treatment options
The type of dementia you have will determine which treatment you need. There’s no cure for most types of dementia, but treatment can keep you comfortable and help you stay independent for as long as possible.

Some conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease have medications available to help control their symptoms. There are also many clinical trials underway to investigate new meds. Consider asking your HCP if a drug trial would be appropriate for you.

How to lower your dementia risk
A 2017 report published in the journal Lancet suggests up to one-third of dementia cases may be avoidable if the right steps are taken during each life phase to lower your risk. The report states up to 35 percent of dementia diagnoses can be traced back to nine risk factors you can actually do something about.

In early life: Encourage children and teens to get as much education as possible. People who complete less than eight years of school may have up to an 8 percent greater risk of dementia later in life. The US is on the right track, with many students completing at least eight years of school. But even if people don’t graduate high school or seek higher education, reading daily and regularly challenging themselves to learn new concepts can encourage healthy thinking skills. Learning a foreign language or new instrument may help buffer against dementia over time, as well.

In mid-life: During this stage, researchers suggest hearing loss, high blood pressure and obesity raise your risk.

In late life: Smoking, a lack of exercise, depression, loneliness and diabetes all put you at risk.

No matter your age, you can benefit from building healthier habits now. Steps like quitting tobacco, building strong relationships and the others outlined above are not only science-backed ways to lower your dementia risk, but they can also improve your overall quality of life.

Medically reviewed in June 2018.

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