Definition and Overview
Dementia, by itself, is not a disease but rather a symptom caused by various diseases and conditions of the brain. It is marked by disruption of mental processes that results in impaired reasoning and memory loss. At other times, dementia causes a change in personality and behavior. When left untreated, these symptoms and manifestations progress over time and impede the ability of the person to function normally in his daily life.
Dementia can be reversed but only when its cause is treatable. For instance, people who have been diagnosed with substance abuse, whether drugs or alcohol, may experience dementia but the symptoms may be reversed if the substance abuse is treated.
Causes of Condition
There are two categories of dementia – treatable and untreatable. While the former be reversed or managed with proper care and medical attention, the latter is progressive and can no longer be prevented nor cured.
Treatable causes include those conditions that may be improved or reversed, such as:
- Long-term substance abuse
- Brain tumors that can be removed
- Subdural hematoma
- Thyroid problems
- Vitamin deficiencies, particularly Vitamin B12
- Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus (enlarged ventricles in the brain that can cause memory loss)
Untreatable causes of dementia:
Alzheimer’s disease – Alzheimer’s disease is considered the most common cause of dementia. It occurs in people aged 65 and older although some already show signs at an earlier age due to genetics. Though the real cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown, brain scans of people with Alzheimer’s reveal that they often have plaques (clumps of protein called beta-amyloid) and tangles (fibrous mass of tau protein). Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that occurs slowly, often in a span of 8-10 years. Those afflicted with Alzheimer’s usually experience word-finding problems, getting lost and forgetfulness.
Vascular dementia – this occurs from brain damage due to reduced or blocked flow in blood vessels. It is also called multi-infarct dementia because it can be caused by multiple small strokes. Dementia usually starts suddenly and people with high-blood pressure and who have suffered previous strokes or heart attacks are most at risk.
Lewy body dementia – a common form of irreversible dementia, its primary symptoms include visual hallucinations and “Parkinsonism” where the patient exhibits features of the Parkinson’s disease like tremor and rigid muscles. People diagnosed with Lewy body dementia experience a sleep behavior disorder that involves acting out dreams.
Frontotemporal dementia – With this condition, the nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain degenerate, which results in inappropriate behavior, language problems, and difficulty with thinking, concentration and movement problems.
Dementia is a progressive condition. It’s possible that degeneration may have been happening for a long time before the actual symptoms, which are listed below, become noticeable.
Memory Loss - The most common symptom of dementia is memory loss, which is also why it is associated with senility and aging. It may initially manifest as forgetfulness, like forgetting where you put your keys or your wallet but it slowly builds up and gets worse in time.
Difficulty in communicating or finding words – People with dementia often struggle to find the words to properly express themselves. When the difficulty becomes severe, it often leads to frustration and anger.
Difficulty with planning and organizing – Complicated tasks can often prove problematic for people suffering from dementia. It can start out simple like having difficulty doing the laundry or preparing a meal.
Disorientation – Akin to memory loss, people with dementia may find themselves getting easily disoriented and getting lost.
Psychological changes – Apart from cognitive changes like those mentioned above, people diagnosed with dementia also exhibit psychological and personality changes. This is mostly because of the common symptoms and the fact that dementia affects the brain’s ability to think, reason, and remember clearly.
Who to see and Types of Treatments Available
Since dementia has many causes and many symptoms, it can take a while to accurately diagnose it. The first step is to see your family doctor or a General Physician. The assessment typically involves looking at patient’s history particularly details as to when the dementia symptoms started to manifest. Physical and laboratory tests are also part and parcel of the diagnostic process. Several tests of mental abilities are also to be expected.
If the dementia is more obvious or latent, your physician may refer you to a specialist depending on the age and symptoms being displayed. Specialists can include old-age psychiatrists, general adult psychiatrists, geriatricians and neurologists.
When dementia is confirmed, it is essential to know which type it is. There are some treatable cases of dementia that can be cured as long as the condition that causes is reversible. But if the diagnosis is untreatable dementia, the only recourse is to manage the symptoms since there is no cure. Treatment available include the following:
Cholinesterase inhibitors – are medications that work by boosting levels of a chemical component that affect the patient’s memory and judgment.
Memantine – is another medication that when combined with cholinesterase inhibitors have beneficial results.
Occupational therapy – People with dementia require help in coping with their daily lives and constant therapy that teach coping behaviors help in the long run.
When should you see a Dementia Specialist?
If you suspect that you or a family member may be exhibiting the signs and symptoms of dementia, you should see a dementia specialist. Here are the common symptoms:
- When the person has difficulty with day-to-day memory
- When the person has difficulty focusing, planning or organizing
- When the person has difficulty finding the words to express himself
- When the person has visual-spatial problems
When the person has difficulty with orientation
- National Institute of Aging|Dementia. www.nia.nih.gov/health/topics/dementia