Few things are more frustrating than misplacing the car keys – again. It is normal to forget things from time to time, like those keys, a wallet or that extra item on the grocery list. Even though this amounts to a mild inconvenience, it is aggravating and even distressing to have a lapse in memory.
Can you imagine how frightening it would be if you couldn’t remember the week-long vacation you just went on, as if the entire memory was erased? No matter how much you focused or concentrated you couldn’t remember taking that vacation. This is not an inconvenience; this is a symptom of dementia.
Dementia effects more than memory and can make everyday-life a struggle. Having a basic conversation is exhausting because every time you try to say a particular word, another comes out. You might read the simple instant-coffee directions over and over, but they never make sense. Easy tasks like buttoning your shirt seem impossible – as though your body isn’t doing what your brain is telling it to.
There are many aspects of dementia, and many misunderstandings. TMC is beginning a three-part blog series to discuss the definition, behaviors and treatment of dementia. This is the first blog, defining dementia and outlining its basic affects and characteristics. It might surprise you to learn all that dementia entails.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a broad term for the diseases (or conditions) that cause nerve cells (neurons) in the brain to stop working or malfunction.
When the nerve cells in the brain cease, a person will experience a decline in memory and the ability to think clearly and rationally. In addition, many experience changes in behavior, vision and motor function. The most common symptoms of dementia are:
• Memory loss (affecting daily life)
• Impaired judgment
• Inability to reason
• Problems focusing or paying attention
• Confusion with time or place
• Challenges completing familiar tasks
• Problems finding the correct word(s) in speech and writing
• Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
• Frequently misplacing things – inability to retrace steps
• Changes in mood or personality
What are the causes?
The common causes of dementia are:
- Alzheimer’s disease (estimated 60-80% of dementia)
- Lewy body dementia
- Vascular dementia
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Frontotemporal Dementia
How does someone get a dementia-related disease?
Medical science has made significant advancements over the last thirty years, and dementia continues to be a dynamic research field. There are still many mysteries about the brain and it is not yet known, conclusively, what causes many dementia-related diseases.
Age is the greatest risk factor for acquiring dementia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent of individuals over the age of 65 experience a form of dementia. Although the risk increases with age, not every senior will experience dementia.
Family history is another strong risk factor. An individual is at higher risk if a sibling, parent or child has experienced dementia. Certain genes have been identified that indicate an increased risk for specific dementia-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Sudden or gradual?
Dementia symptoms progress slowly over several years. Many forms progress in stages:
- Early Stage (Mild)
- Recent memory loss
- Difficulty managing money, driving, or handling social situations
- Middle Stage (Moderate)
- Difficulty with language
- Problems keeping track of personal items
- May need help with grooming
- Late Stage (Severe)
- Long- and short-term memory affected
If dementia symptoms are sudden and acute, it could suggest a reversible medical cause such as:
- Urinary tract infections
- Metabolic changes (Thyroid)
- Nutritional deficiencies (Vitamin B12)
The symptoms of dementia will drastically improve or alleviate when the reversible medical cause is treated. If sudden and severe symptoms arise, contact your doctor right away.
Dementia can cause strange and unexpected behavior, which can be one of the most challenging symptoms for individuals and their caretakers. Like most chronic conditions, dementia can affect every person differently. Some of the more common behaviors are:
- Repetitive actions, such as hitting, wiping surfaces, making noise (clapping, etc.), rocking
- Wandering and pacing, not able to sit still
- Going to the door often, trying to open locked doors, trying to leave when visitors leave
- Boredom, lack of purpose, looking for something lost
- Anxiety, stress, fear
- Hunger, thirst, bathroom needs
- Wanting to go home (even if at home)
Assisting a friend or family member who has dementia can be exceptionally challenging because symptoms can be severe and persistent. Often, a caretaker will have to repeat things several times – even within the span of a few minutes. The affected individual will usually respond negatively if someone tries to convince them that their thoughts or actions are irrational. The symptoms may become so acute that constant monitoring is needed.
Sound like it would be pretty hard to be the caretaker? It is, however, we must recognize the person’s behavior is beyond their control.
“If you are going to help a person with dementia, you must understand they cannot think, reason or remember,” said Terri Waldman, former director of memory and dementia care at Handmaker/Tucson Medical Center. “You have to let things go, and refrain from challenging their misconceptions.”
What can we do?
Consult a physician who specializes in dementia-related illness. “It is important to get a diagnosis,” Waldman said. “A diagnosis will determine the most effective medical treatment(s) and will help the individual and their family develop the best care plan.”
Medical specialists will perform:
• Mental status test (memory, reasoning, visual-motor skills)
• Physical examination (lab tests, brain scan, test for other disorders)
• Psychiatric evaluation (rule out emotionally related symptoms)
• Family interviews (get more information about behavior and symptoms)
What treatments are available?
Currently, there is no cure for dementia and all dementia-related conditions are degenerative, meaning they will get worse over time. There are medications that can control or reduce the severity of symptoms, and there are medications that can slow the progression of dementia-related diseases. Medication therapy can help with behavioral and cognitive challenges, and improve the quality of life for some individuals experiencing dementia.
More than memory loss
Dementia is more than memory loss, and the numerous life-changing symptoms have a detrimental impact on individuals and families. Treatments are available, and it is important to know what symptoms to look for and who to talk with. Medical research continues to move quickly, in hope of finding a conclusive prevention and cure.
- TMC for Seniors offers education, trainings, support groups and services to individuals, families and caregivers who are affected by dementia. Please call (520) 324-1960 for more information.
- The Alzheimer’s Association also has an active local chapter in Tucson, offering support groups and services for individuals and caregivers. The Alzheimer’s Association Southern Arizona Regional Office can be reached at (520) 322-6601.
- Pima Council on Aging provides a information and dementia support services to the community. The PCOA office can be reached at (520) 790-0504.
- About Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia
- Alzheimer’s Foundation of America