Physicians refer to all neurological conditions that affect memory, thinking, reasoning, and overall brain functionality as dementia. It’s the general term used to describe progressive disorders that impair cognitive abilities.
Microbiologist Peter Piot, who discovered the Ebola virus, referred to dementia as the global pandemic. Currently, there are over 55 million cases globally, and each year, almost 10 million new diagnoses are added to the number, based on data by the WHO.
Health experts seek to bring the numbers down. One solution they see is further education on dementia, including spotting early symptoms, strategies to lower the disease risk, especially for people with a family history, and making essential lifestyle changes to delay the progress of memory loss.
Common Types of Dementia
Dementia is either reversible, meaning the damage to cognition is controllable and treatable, or irreversible, meaning brain deterioration continues to progress.
Reversible dementias are conditions that cause the person to manifest dementia-like symptoms, like memory loss, confusion, and movement problems. Examples of these conditions are:
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Sleep problems such as insomnia
- Brain tumors
- Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH)
Meanwhile, irreversible dementias are familiar types that are incurable. More than 70 other health conditions cause irreversible dementias, but here are the top five most prevalent cases.
- Alzheimer’s disease (AD)
Figures reveal that in 2022, around 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older were living with Alzheimer's. It's the most prevalent type of dementia.
It's caused by the abnormal deposits of toxic proteins called amyloid and tau or 'plaques' and 'tangles' that damage the connections between brain nerve cells, resulting in brain cell degeneration..
- Vascular dementia (VaD)
This form of dementia is prevalent in people with untreated diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure. Stroke is the most common catalyst of vascular dementia because, after an attack, it often results in a blocked artery in the brain, which disrupts the blood flow and causes permanent damage to specific brain areas.
- Lewy body dementia (LBD)
LBD is another type of progressive dementia caused by abnormal clumps of proteins called Lewy bodies inside the brain cells. Experts usually describe the symptoms as a combination of both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Apart from memory decline, a person with Lewy Body Dementia also has movement impairment and may experience akinesia, wherein muscles lose their ability to move, leading to paralysis.
- Parkinson’s disease (PD)
PD occurs when dopamine-producing nerve cells die in the brain area called the substantia nigra. Dopamine is a crucial neurotransmitter or chemical substance that maintains motor control, coordination, execution, mood, and more.
When there's insufficient dopamine in the brain due to nerve cell loss, the part of the brain controlling motor skills can't function as expected. Hence, people with Parkinson's first experience abnormalities in their movement, such as tremors, stiff muscles, and balance issues. Symptoms of cognitive decline manifest at a later time.
- Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) or Pick's disease
Like Alzheimer's and Lewy body dementia, FTD is also triggered by toxic proteins Tau, TDP-43, and FUS that build up in the brain's frontal and temporal lobes. FTD is rare, and there are only about 50,000 to 60,000 cases in the US, with the majority occurring in people between 45 to 65 years old.
Causes of Dementia
Other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, have a single defined cause, but not dementia. Experts haven’t found what causes it. Based on observations and studies on thousands of diagnosed patients, it’s assumed that multiple factors come into play for its development.
Most individuals living with dementia are at least 65 years old, except for the early-onset variety, wherein people as young as 30 to 64 experience dementia symptoms.
Even now, early-onset dementia is still considered uncommon due to its small number of cases.
Another factor that plays a massive role in getting diagnosed with dementia is family history. Experts analyzed the health information of over 302,000 men and women between 50-73 years old. They found that older adults with a history of dementia had about 70% increased risk compared to those that didn’t have a family history. Stroke is the most common catalyst of vascular dementia because, after an attack, it often results in a blocked artery in the brain, which disrupts the blood flow and causes permanent damage to specific brain areas.
- Health complexities and co-existing conditions
Older people with chronic illnesses such as stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and multimorbidity also have a higher risk of certain forms of dementia.
- Excessive Smoking and Drinking
Excessive drinking and smoking habits can cause irrevocable damage to the brain, elevating the risk of brain impairment. According to the WHO, smoking has generated approximately 14% of Alzheimer’s disease cases in the world.
- Poor Diet
As Ludwig Feuerbach said, “We are what we eat,” implying that what we consume and put inside our body influences how we feel and behave. Refined carbs, alcohol, sugary drinks, and foods high in trans fat harm brain health.
- Lack of Movement
Exercise or any form of fitness activity has been proven to improve blood circulation to the brain and enhance thinking, problem-solving, and learning skills. It also helps release endorphins, which makes one feel happier.
The lack of physical activity has a negative impact on brain functions. One study revealed that subjective cognitive decline in people over 45 years old is twice as common in those inactive than those active.
Symptoms of Dementia
General symptoms of cognitive deterioration for all types of dementia are nearly the same. It varies in severity depending on the stage of the disease. A diagnosed person will experience psychological and cognitive changes over the years.
Common mild to severe dementia symptoms include:
- Memory loss
- Deterioration of cognitive abilities across many functions (thinking, reasoning, learning, retention, etc.)
- Change in behavior (confusion, aggressiveness, agitation)
- Hallucinations and delusions
- A decline in visual and spatial abilities
- Difficulty accomplishing both simple and routine tasks (especially at the later stage of dementia)
- Social withdrawal from the family and society
- Problems with motor functions (diminished or loss of ability to coordinate different parts of the body)
- Personality changes (acting sad and losing interest in things they're passionate about)
- Anxiety and depression
It’s challenging to diagnose brain deterioration at its early stage because most symptoms are subtle. On top of that, brain changes due to dementia can happen 10 or even more years earlier before physicians can detect signs of brain damage.
Another tricky thing about dementia symptoms is that many indications look like signs of aging. For instance, forgetfulness is relatively common in older people, but it could also be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.
Lowering the Risk of Dementia by Living Healthy
There are still many things we don’t know about dementia, including its genetic etiology. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not preventable. Even without knowing its precise cause, knowing the risk factors can help everyone make necessary changes to their lifestyle.
There are four health domains that one can change to live healthier: nutrition, lifestyle, and physical and social life. Choosing what to eat, quitting negative habits, engaging in physical activity, and participating in social events can help maintain good brain health.
Dementia impacts the entire family, so if you notice a loved one exhibiting signs of memory loss, visit your doctor for a mental checkup and risk evaluation. Remember that early detection can reverse some mild dementia-causing symptoms.
Need help finding a new home for an elderly loved one with dementia? Get in touch with a dementia care specialist at Senex Memory Advisors to help you navigate senior living and long-term care options.
Syed has years of experience dealing with people, understanding their needs, and helping them find solutions to their problems.
As a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA), Certified Dementia Practitioner (CDP), Certified Montessori Dementia Care Professional (CMDCP), Syed is committed to working closely with Senior and their family knowing what is it like for individuals facing a challenging time, at times groping in dark trying to figure what is the appropriate next step or care level for their unique situation.
Syed and Senex Memory Advisors are fully committed to working closely with families in creating a personalized, step-by-step process memory care plan at zero cost.