What Is Dementia?
Dementia is a progressive loss of cognitive function, marked by memory problems, trouble communicating, impaired judgment, and confused thinking. It is caused by damage to brain cells and usually worsens over time. Dementia most often occurs during old age but is a more severe form of decline than normal aging. People who develop dementia may lose the ability to regulate their emotions, especially anger, and their personalities may change.
There are multiple stages of dementia, ranging from some minor difficulty functioning to severe impairment. In the most severe stage, people with dementia are completely dependent on the help of others for the basic activities of daily life, such as keeping themselves clean and fed. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's Disease, a condition that affects more than 5 million Americans. There is currently no cure for most types of dementia, but certain treatments can help alleviate the symptoms temporarily.
Alzheimer's and Cognitive Decline
Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease, not a normal part of aging. Early-onset Alzheimer’s (in people under age 65) can be quite common. In the earliest stage, patients may have trouble learning and remembering new information. As it advances, patients may experience a range of symptoms, including disorientation and confusion, memory loss, sudden, unfounded suspicions about loved ones, and even behavioral and personality changes. People with Alzheimer’s may be the last to know, as their brain is being affected, and their condition is often more obvious to those who interact with them on a daily basis, particularly friends and family.
Prevention and Treatment
Making key lifestyle changes is critical to reducing a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, as well as maintaining good cognitive functioning as long as possible. This includes engaging in regular physical activity, which increases blood and oxygen flow in the brain. It’s also important to eat a heart-healthy diet with plenty of water, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting sugar and saturated fats.
Staying socially engaged later in life can also help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; this may include developing a strong, supportive network of friends and families and becoming a part of communities that matter to you.
Dementia can occur as a result of malfunctioning proteins not found in other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Lewy body dementia, or due to injuries that prevent blood flow to the brain and cause long-term damage.
Lewy body dementia develops when abnormal protein deposits (called Lewy bodies) cause brain cells to malfunction or die. This process usually begins around brain areas associated with memory and movement, but later progresses to areas involved with learning, language, emotion, and later breathing and alertness. Common symptoms of Lewy body dementia are similar to those found in Alzheimer’s patients. More than one million Americans suffer from this form of dementia, and there is currently no cure.
Vascular dementia arises as a result of brain injuries that reduce blood flow and oxygen to the brain, such as a stroke, or other conditions that increase a person’s risk for a stroke, such as high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, or diabetes. This trauma causes progressive memory loss, which is one component of vascular dementia. Symptoms include slowed attention and thinking and trouble with organization and problem-solving.
Treatment for vascular dementia specifically revolves around the prevention of stroke, which includes modulating blood pressure, and there are medications people can take that reduce the risk of additional brain damage that accompanies strokes.