Dementia refers to global cognitive impairment that is significant enough to interfere with daily functioning and is a change from a person’s own baseline. Dementia can be caused by different medical diagnoses, each of which are characterized by what is happening in the brain, microscopically. In fact, it does not matter what type of neurobiological change is occurring, but where it occurs, in the brain that determines the symptoms of dementia evident in each person. This is why symptoms of people who have different types of dementia can overlap greatly.
Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia and is the most common cause of dementia in people over the age of 65. The abnormal brain changes in people with Alzheimer’s disease trigger a cascading decline in cognitive abilities (your thinking skills). As the underlying pathology increases, so does the ability to function independently and to perform daily activities. Behavior, mood, feelings, and relationships are also all affected.
The terms “senile,” “senility,” or “senile dementia” are often used incorrectly in place of dementia. These terms reflect a formerly widespread belief that mental decline is a normal part of the aging process, which is now known to be incorrect.
Types of Dementia
Numerous medical conditions can cause dementia, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Vascular dementia
- Lewy body dementia
- Mixed dementia
- Huntington’s disease
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Parkinson’s disease dementia
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
- Posterior cortical atrophy disease
- Down syndrome dementia
Other conditions, some of which are treatable and reversible, that can cause symptoms of dementia include thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies.
Signs and Symptoms of Dementia
Most dementias are progressive, gradually worsening as time goes on. The signs of dementia can vary greatly in each individual. Examples include:
- Problems with short-term memory, such as remembering to turn off the stove after cooking
- Placing items in unusual places, such as keys in the microwave
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps, such as keeping track of a purse or wallet
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life, such as forgetting appointments
- Challenges in planning or problem solving
- Difficulty in completing familiar tasks, such as paying bills, and planning and preparing meals
- Confusion with time or place, such as traveling out of the neighborhood at odd times and not remembering why
- Trouble with vision characterized by an inability to understand visual images and spatial relationships and which may cause balance difficulties, judging distances (driving impairment) and seeing correct color and contrast
- New problems with words when speaking or writing; having trouble participating in conversations
- Decreased or poor judgment and decision making
- Changes in mood and personality, such as confusion, depression, fear, anxiety and suspicion
Diagnosis of Dementia
No one diagnostic test is available to determine if someone has dementia. Types of dementia are diagnosed based on taking a detailed and careful medical history, performing a physical examination, laboratory tests, and documenting the characteristic signs of changes in thinking, daily functioning and the behavior associated with each type.
Despite no one dementia test, doctors are still able to determine if a person has dementia. The exact type of dementia becomes harder to diagnose because the symptoms and brain changes of different brain conditions can overlap. Some cases may require a specialist, such as a neurologist or gero-psychologist, for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Dementia Treatment and Care
Treatment of dementia depends on the cause, making proper diagnosis even more important. For most progressive dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure and no treatment to slow or stop the disease progression. Medications may temporarily improve symptoms. Non-drug therapies can also help with some symptoms of dementia.
Developing effective treatments for dementia can be achieved through increased research funding and participation in clinical studies. The CRCNJ offers access to clinical trials to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Clinical trials give participants the ability to play a more active role in their health care, access to cutting-edge technology, routine monitoring, and evaluation by a team of specialists.
If you or someone you know is experiencing difficulty with memory or other concerning changes in thinking skills, speaking with a professional is imperative. Professional evaluation may detect a condition that is treatable. If dementia is the cause of symptoms, early diagnosis allows for the maximum benefit from available treatments, access to resources, and provides an opportunity to volunteer for clinical trials or studies, as well as providing time to plan for the future.
Recent research on lifestyle factors shows that these variables show great promise in moderating symptoms and the onset of dementia. Knowledge, education, and adherence to a treatment plan are very valuable–this is where The CRCNJ can help. Please contact us today with questions, concerns or to see if you qualify for a clinical trial.
DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER OF THE CRCNJ