There are certain buzz words that you start to hear more often as you get older – “retirement” and “grandchildren,” for example, come to mind. But there’s a good chance you will also start hearing medical lingo with increasing frequency. One of the terms that can lead to confusion and heartache is “dementia,” but understanding what dementia is can help you and your family better address the signs, symptoms, and causes.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term that can describe a general decline in mental health, especially characterized by memory loss and confusion. When suffering from dementia, it can be difficult to find the right words, problem solve, or plan and organize information. It also leads to disorientation, including getting lost and confused, and can cause depression and mood and personality changes.
The symptoms of dementia can differ depending on the underlying disease and often are accompanied by other symptoms that characterize that particular condition. For example, with Alzheimer’s (the most common cause of dementia), a patient will often experience loss of mobility, trouble sleeping, and a tendency to wander off.
Oftentimes when dementia is the result of a progressive disease, these symptoms will worsen with time.
What causes dementia?
Dementia occurs when there is damage to brain cells or the connections among cells in the brain. The symptoms will differ depending on which disease is causing the damage and what part of the brain is damaged.
The causes of Alzheimer’s are not fully understood, but the disease is known to lead to certain types of proteins to clump (known as plaques) and tangle in the brain, leading to the common symptoms of short term memory loss, not recognizing close family and friends, and becoming anxious or aggressive.
Other diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease can cause dementia as well.
Additionally, some people may suffer from dementia after a stroke, which interrupts blood flow to the brain and can damage the brain cells. Other causes of this type of dementia, known as Vascular Dementia, can be ministrokes, silent strokes, and other damage to the blood vessels in the brain.
It is possible that dementia is being caused by more than one of these conditions. For example, an Alzheimer’s patient who suffers from a stroke may also experience Vascular Dementia, so it is important to minimize risk factors as much as possible even after the initial onset of dementia symptoms.
Who is at risk?
Some factors that can lead to the development of dementia can be changed with a healthy lifestyle, but some cannot. Factors like a family history and certain preexisting conditions like Down Syndrome can make you more susceptible to developing dementia and the risk increases naturally as you age. Having diabetes may also increase your risk of dementia, so it is important that your blood sugar is controlled as much as possible.
Some factors are within your control. Maintaining a healthy diet that includes produce, whole grains, nuts, and seeds; reducing alcohol consumption; controlling high blood pressure and high cholesterol; and not smoking, as well as staying active and maintaining an exercise routine, can reduce the risk of dementia.
It is also believed that keeping your mind active can help prevent the onset of dementia. Reading, solving puzzles, and playing word games are thought to stimulate the brain and keep the connections between brain cells healthy and active.
Can dementia be treated?
How dementia is treated varies from case to case and is largely dependent upon the underlying causes. In cases where dementia is caused by progressive neurological diseases (like Alzheimer’s), there is no cure and treatments cannot stop the progression of dementia, but some drugs have been able to temporarily improve symptoms.
Typically, the focus is on managing symptoms, such as depression and mood swings. Medications may be able to help.