What is dementia: causes, symptoms, treatment
Dementia is a condition that manifests itself in the decline of mental capacity. It is not a specific disease, and the term is usually used to describe a group of symptoms that cause a deterioration of mental capacity.
Although these symptoms can occur at any age, people over the age of 65 have an increased risk of developing these conditions. Among the types of dementia, the most common is Alzheimer’s, and 60-70% of patients with declining mental capacity are affected by this condition.
In general, a person experiencing dementia will have trouble performing simple, everyday activities, will have frequent mood swings, personality disorders, and communication problems. In the following, you can find out everything you need to know about dementia and how people with this condition can be helped.
Causes of dementia
Dementia is caused by the simultaneous degradation of nerve cells in different regions of the brain. Each individual manifests in a different way, and the symptoms differ depending on the area of the brain that has been affected.
Most of the time, dementia is incurable, but there are also situations in which it can be treated. If the condition is manifested against a background of vitamin deficiency or in response to certain medications, treatment can help the patient to fully recover. In general, the main causes of dementia are:
- Degenerative diseases
These diseases are characterized by the fact that they do not respond to treatment and worsen regardless of the measures taken by the patient. The most common diseases that cause degenerative dementia are: Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, mixed dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, frontotemporal dementia, or Lewy body dementia.
It is the most common form of dementia. According to researchers, this disease manifests itself gradually over five stages and usually progresses over several years. It is caused by certain fragments of brain tissue that deposit in the brain and cause the death of other neighboring cells. Alzheimer’s also affects acetylcholine, an extremely important substance for the brain, responsible for transmitting nerve impulses from one cell to another. The first signs of this condition are short-term memory loss, disorientation, difficulty expressing and completing activities that were previously simple.
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
This disease manifests itself when Lewy bodies interrupt the signals transmitted between neurons. These bodies are conglomerates of abnormal proteins, which cause symptoms such as visual hallucinations, altered consciousness, tremors specific to Parkinson’s disease, or visual perception problems.
- Front temporal dementia
This type of dementia is characterized by damage to the patient’s temporal and frontal lobes. The symptoms do not usually manifest themselves until the age of 50-60, but there are situations when they can appear even earlier. The first signs of frontotemporal dementia are personality changes, behavior, or speech impairment. These symptoms are related to the degradation of the temporal lobe, but also of the frontal one.
Regardless of the cause of dementia, a person suffering from such a condition will benefit enormously from a professional care service, through which to be assisted in daily activities.
Other causes of dementia
Pseudo-dementia is another form of this manifestation, which can be caused by depression. In fact, this condition does not appear as degradation of brain cells, but due to depression, which causes the affected person to lose motivation and concentration.
There are also many diseases that can cause memory loss, including:
- Thyroid disorders;
- Kidney disease;
- Vitamin deficiency (in rare cases);
- Respiratory or urinary tract infections.
What are the symptoms of dementia?
In general, the symptoms of dementia are related to frequent and progressive memory loss, loss of ability to concentrate and pay attention to certain everyday things, and decreased visual perception.
Early signs of dementia
Dementia is very difficult to detect, and the signs that appear in the early stages of the disease are subtle and vague, and can often be ignored. The most common are:
- State of confusion;
- Loss of the ability to perform daily tasks;
- Personality change;
- Apathy and withdrawal in isolated areas;
- Frequent and progressive memory loss.
What is the Incipient Cognitive Deficit?
People diagnosed with MCI (mild cognitive impairment) are already experiencing symptoms such as memory loss, but these are very difficult to differentiate from normal aging. The person will experience daily problems, which differ in severity.
In most cases, people with MCI end up suffering from dementia, usually Alzheimer’s. About 40% of people with MCI end up suffering from dementia within three years, and about 80% of these people experience the condition within 6 years.
Although a person suffering from MCI cannot resort to a treatment to heal, there is a chance to slow down or even stop the progression of the disease. Normally, one in 8 people with memory disorders will progress to dementia, but it is not possible to say which of these people will be affected.
Simple techniques to improve your memory
In addition to drug treatment, diseases that affect memory can be slowed down or even stopped by a healthy lifestyle and a few simple but extremely effective techniques. These include:
- Drawing up a daily list of activities and using a daily diary;
- Regular physical activity, beneficial regardless of age;
- Brain training by solving crossword puzzles, Sudoku, reading, and logic exercises;
- A healthy and balanced diet.
Diagnosis of dementia
Dementia is a disease that cannot be diagnosed by blood tests. The detection of this condition, especially in the early stages, is quite complicated, and therefore it is necessary to obtain a second opinion. To make a correct diagnosis, certain steps must be followed:
In the case of a patient suspected of dementia, the medical evaluation is atypical and, in the first instance, consists of a discussion between the doctor and the patient. The most common questions asked by the doctor will be:
- What are the symptoms?
- When did they start?
- How do your symptoms manifest?
- Do you have symptoms that appear and disappear or are persistent?
- Did you give up certain activities you were doing because of your symptoms?
- How severe are these symptoms?
- Are you on medication? If so, what kind of treatment?
- Do you have other ailments?
- Are there cases of Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease in your family?
- Have you been going through a moment of major importance lately?
- Have you had a more stressful time lately?
In order to avoid confusion between dementia and another condition with similar symptoms, it is necessary to perform certain laboratory tests to determine exactly what is causing the symptoms. These analyzes include:
- Checking the level of vitamin B12 to determine if there is a deficiency;
- Checking thyroid hormones to identify potential hypothyroidism;
- Blood sugar level;
- Toxicological examination;
- ALT or AST to check if the liver is functioning in optimal parameters;
- Lumbar puncture to check the proteins in the bone marrow.
If your doctor still wants to make sure there are no other causes of these symptoms, he or she will recommend a CT (CT scan) and an MRI (MRI). Through these tests, problems such as stroke or brain tumors can be identified.
How does dementia evolve?
The evolution of dementia is progressive and will worsen over the years. Currently, there are certain treatments that can help slow the condition, but unfortunately, this is an irreversible one that cannot be cured. In this situation, an elderly patient, suffering from dementia, can benefit from professional help at home, through which to maintain their quality of life and to have at their disposal all the necessary facilities.
How is dementia treated?
Currently, there are certain treatments that can slow the progression of dementia or even stop certain symptoms. To a dementia patient, the doctor will prescribe:
Treatment to remove the causes
If dementia has occurred as a result of a treatable cause, the doctor will try to repair the cause to relieve or even stop the symptoms. Treatments include:
- Vitamins to eliminate B12 deficiency;
- Surgical removal of brain tumors;
- Treating depression;
- Stopping any drug treatment that triggers dementia-specific symptoms;
- Hormonal drugs for the treatment of hypothyroidism;
- Treatment of encephalitis.
Treatment to stop or slow down the progression of dementia
For types of dementia that cannot be cured, treatment is based more on slowing down or, as the case may be, stopping it, and there are certain medications that can help. But be careful. Drug treatment is administered only on doctor’s instructions and only on prescription. Some medications have side effects and may react with other treatments you follow.
It is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor that has the role of reducing the cognitive degradation caused by dementia. The drug is useful for treating both Alzheimer’s and dementia with Lewy bodies.
People suffering from behavioral disorders who become agitated due to dementia may be given antipsychotics.
Another drug used to treat Alzheimer’s. It blocks the effects produced by certain substances in the brain. It is used as a treatment for mixed dementia.
If the patient is experiencing dementia-specific symptoms and they are found to have been triggered by tumors or hydrocephalus, surgery will be required.
How to treat a dementia patient
Given that all types of dementia lead to high memory loss, it is crucial that the patient receives special care, so as not to hurt himself and to enjoy life as comfortably as possible. Because this condition is manifested mainly in the elderly, we will talk about the type of care needed for this category of people.
It is very likely that a person with dementia will forget to eat on time and therefore will need someone to make sure they are fed properly. Also, an advanced dementia sufferer will have difficulty handling cutlery and will need help from someone else. If a family member is unable to feed the patient, you can seek specialist help.
A safe environment
Because a person with dementia is no longer aware of the danger and can no longer be responsible for his decisions, it is important that he is provided with an environment in which he cannot be injured. To do this, you need to consider certain aspects:
- Do not leave dangerous equipment at the patient’s disposal, such as knives, axes, sharp objects, but keep them in a safe place, to which he does not have access;
- Keep medicines and toxic substances out of the reach of the patient:
- Try to remove carpets and sills that the patient may be obstructing;
- Make sure that the rooms used by the patient are lit at night so that there is no risk of injury.
Even though dementia is, in most cases, an incurable and irreversible disease, it is important to make sure that people suffering from such a condition are properly cared for and helped to lead a dignified life in a safe environment.