Every day in the United States, millions of seniors are diagnosed with dementia, a term that has become increasingly common in the elderly community, yet one that is vastly misunderstood. While dementia is often used as a synonym to Alzheimer's disease, it is actually something entirely different.
With more seniors getting diagnosed with dementia than ever, it is increasingly important that seniors, their caregivers and their loved ones all understand what this diagnosis means and what life with dementia really entails.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is not Alzheimer's disease. Dementia is a general term used to describe a decline in a person's mental ability. This decline is so serious that it interferes with their ability to function in their daily life. Dementia is not simply memory loss. Alzheimer's disease is a very common type of dementia.
Although seniors are diagnosed with dementia every day, it is not actually a specific disease. It is a general term used to describe a number of symptoms.
Types of Dementia
Dementia comes in a variety of different forms, and not every person's experience with dementia is the same. However, most dementia patients fall into one of the following categories. The following are the main types of dementia that seniors are often diagnosed with.
Alzheimer's disease is unsurprisingly the most common type of dementia. Typically, symptoms of this type of dementia include:
- Trouble remembering names, conversations or events
- Unexplainable behavior changes
- Difficulty Speaking
- Poor communication skills
- Impaired judgment
- Confusion and disorientation
- Eventual issues with swallowing and walking
In Alzheimer's patients, protein fragments known as plaques and twisted protein strands called tangles appear in the brain, while extensive nerve cell damage occurs killing different parts of the brain. There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease but there are Alzheimer's treatments that can slow down the progression of this devastating illness.
Dementia With Lewy Bodies
Individuals who have dementia with Lewy bodies or DLB typically start with memory loss issues, similar to Alzheimer's disease. However, individuals with this type of dementia also tend to have sleep issues, balance issues while walking and sometimes have visual hallucinations.
This type of dementia happens with Lewy bodies, or clumps of proteins develop in the cortex of the brain. Dementia with Lewy bodies can occur on its own, or along with Alzheimer's disease.
Symptoms of this type of dementia include changes in behavior and personality. Many individuals also develop difficulty with language. Typically, this type of dementia starts developing earlier than Alzheimer's with most patients receiving a diagnosis around the age of 60.
This progressive brain disorder is characterized by individuals exhibiting abnormal or involuntary movements. Many seniors also develop issues with depression, mood changes and irritability, while their thinking and reasoning skills also start to decline. This is actually a genetic condition that worsens over time, especially in older adults.
As the name suggests, mixed dementia occurs when an individual has one or more types of dementia. This is actually very common in seniors today.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Symptoms of this rare type of dementia include challenges with walking and controlling urination, and at times, memory loss. It is caused by a buildup of fluid in the brain and can sometimes be corrected with a shunt that drains excess fluid.
Parkinson's disease is becoming an increasingly common type of dementia in seniors today. This type of dementia can seem similar to Alzheimer's disease at first, but it is actually a condition that includes nerve degeneration in the part of the brain that makes dopamine.
This is a progressive form of dementia that often includes problems with gait imbalances, movement and general slowness.
Vascular Dementia (Post-Stroke Dementia)
Vascular dementia occurs after an individual has suffered some type of stroke. Common symptoms include impaired judgment and an inability to make decisions or plans.
There typically isn't as much memory loss with this type of dementia, as it occurs when blood vessel blockage causes bleeding in the brain. In brain imaging tests of those with vascular dementia there are often noticeable blood vessel impairments.
Symptoms of Dementia
Since dementia is essentially a term used to describe a collection of symptoms, defining the actual symptoms of dementia can sometimes be a challenge. While they can vary some of the most common symptoms include:
- Short-term memory impairment
- Communication or language challenges
- Problems with comprehension
- Complete memory loss
- Issues recalling familiar names or appointments
- Forgetting how to perform everyday tasks
- Losing the ability to focus and pay attention
- Disorientation particularly in a familiar environment
- Impaired reasoning or judgment
- Visual perception complications
- Significant weight loss
One of the best ways to determine if a person is exhibiting dementia symptoms is to look for changes in their behavior. Some individuals simply have a worse memory than others. A senior who is normally absent-minded forgetting their purse doesn't necessarily need to visit their doctor for a dementia diagnosis. However, noticeable changes in a normally very diligent senior constantly forgetting to pay their bills, may be a cause for concern.
It is important to note that dementia is a progressive disease, meaning most symptoms start out slowly and get worse over time. The best thing that a family member or loved one can do is to pay close attention to the changes in behavior and how these changes progress over time.
There is no cure for dementia. However, with an accurate diagnosis, many seniors are able to get the support and the treatment that they need in order to improve their quality of life while dealing with dementia.
There is also no single test that can determine whether or not an individual has dementia. Typically, primary care providers will rely on a bevy of tests in order to determine whether an individual is suffering from dementia or another ailment. Seniors should always visit a specialist in order to get the most accurate diagnosis possible.
Typically tests include a detailed medical history, and a basic check-up that includes blood or urine samples and a blood pressure test. Most doctors will also perform a neurological exam that includes tests for reflexes, coordination, sensation, speech and eye movement. Some specialists also prefer to do a brain imaging study, although these are mostly performed to rule out other conditions.
Once a physician has determined whether or not the individual may be suffering from dementia, they can help develop a treatment plan and help the senior and their loved ones make a plan for the future.