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What is Dementia?: Symptoms, Causes & Diagnosis

Last Updated Dec 07, 2021

What is Dementia?: Symptoms, Causes & Diagnosis

Dementia is not considered a disease itself, but rather an umbrella term for a collection of symptoms that appear when the brain is damaged in some way. The term dementia comes from Latin words that mean "without mind". Dementia comes in many forms; Alzheimer's disease is the most prevalent among older adults and accounts for between 70% and 80% of all dementia cases.

Dementia develops slowly, often starting with forgetfulness or mild confusion. Once dementia sets in, it often progresses over time. Most dementia cases can't be prevented since it isn't always clear what causes them. However, people should still take proactive measures to protect their health, such as maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly. Families are affected by dementia because people with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia often rely on family members for support and care.

Symptoms of Dementia

The warning signs of dementia differ from person to person; some begin gradually while others are more rapid. Some people may only show mild symptoms, such as forgetting the time, while others may have severe problems like forgetting the names of family members or not knowing how to perform familiar tasks. However, the 10 common warning signs include:

  • Memory loss that affects daily life
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks or basic activities such as driving or cooking
  • Confusion about time, events, days of the week or months of the year
  • Difficulty with thinking and reasoning
  • Problems completing routine tasks such as getting dressed in the morning
  • Going places without knowing how you got there or why you went there in the first place
  • Making bad decisions due to decreased or poor judgement
  • Trouble speaking, writing and understanding language
  • Problems understanding information like reading a newspaper, watching TV or following a film or play
  • Difficulty concentrating

In addition to forgetting daily activities due to cognitive decline, people with dementia also exhibit behavioural changes. These include agitation or hostility, withdrawal from social activities, increased irritability, apathy toward hobbies once enjoyed, impaired ability to make decisions and solve problems, repetitive questioning or thoughts, excessive suspiciousness or paranoia, wandering away from one's usual environment, increased purposeless activity and night-time restlessness. These symptoms are often difficult for families to observe in dementia patients.

Causes and Risk Factors for Dementia

Dementia is a broad term to describe a set of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain as a result of disease or injury. The dementia spectrum consists of dementia, delirium and amnesia, with dementia being the most common diagnosis in elderly people. The two main types of dementia are Alzheimer's disease, also known as Alzheimer dementia, and vascular dementia (or stroke).

Dementia can also be caused by other conditions, such as Parkinson's disease or Huntington's disease, as well as Huntington's disease-like dementia complex. There are many factors that increase the risk of dementia, including:

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia at this time but early diagnosis may help treat or manage the symptoms. Some dementia causes can be reversible such as vitamin deficiencies (i.e., Vitamin B, D or E), low thyroid function (hypothyroidism), infections or vascular events (strokes). Other dementia causes, specifically Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, cannot be reversed. If dementia develops as a result of depression, antidepressant medication, as well as mind-body interventions, such as hypnotherapy, may be helpful.

The 7 Stages of Dementia

Dementia progresses through 7 different stages, beginning with Stage 1, which is normal cognition, and ending in Stage 7 or late-stage dementia. In the first two stages of dementia, symptoms might be mild and easily overlooked; however, they become more apparent as dementia progresses to later stages.

Stage 1: No signs of cognitive impairment. At this stage, a person's cognitive abilities are intact and they experience no problems at all.

Stage 2: Mild cognitive decline. The patient frequently misplaces their personal belongings and struggles to find the right words to express an idea.

Stage 3: Mild cognitive decline. The patient experiences short-term memory loss and occasional forgetfulness at this stage.

Stage 4: Moderate cognitive decline. The patient becomes disoriented and withdraws from activities they once enjoyed. 

Stage 5: Moderately severe decline. Normal everyday tasks such as tying shoes or taking a bath are forgotten by the patient.

Stage 6: Severe decline: Forgetting the names of family members and friends becomes more frequent. Additionally, the patient requires assistance with activities of daily living such as going to the bathroom. 

Stage 7: Very severe decline. This is the final stage of dementia, when the patient's cognitive functions are completely gone. It is impossible for them to make decisions or think for themselves, nor can they function physically without assistance.

7 stages of dementiaSource: The Arbors Assisted Living Residential Communities

Diagnosis of Dementia

A medical professional, such as a neurologist or psychologist, can diagnose dementia. During the dementia diagnosis process, the health professional will get the patient's medical history and perform a physical examination to look for common signs associated with a particular disease, or to rule out other conditions. Some forms of dementia are diagnosed through laboratory tests, which look for changes in cognitive functions that affect the patient's behaviour and thinking patterns.

The DSM-5 criteria are used by doctors to diagnose dementia. It allows them to identify significant impairment in memory or at least one other cognitive domain such as disorientation, language disturbances, impaired judgement, trouble completing tasks, or dementia of another type. Additionally, they will be able to check for delirium or dementia caused by a medical condition and ensure that the symptoms were not caused by substances or another psychiatric condition.  

Treatment for Dementia

The treatment of dementia can involve medication and lifestyle changes such as exercising, avoiding high-fat foods and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Activities that stimulate mental function, such as puzzles, mazes, games and reading, can also improve the quality of life for dementia patients.

The risk of developing dementia can be reduced by staying physically active, eating a balanced diet, not smoking or drinking excessively, and getting regular checkups to monitor one's health. Regular communication with friends and family can also help keep it at bay. 

As soon as dementia starts to develop, medication and behavioral therapy can be used together. The most important thing is to diagnose dementia quickly so that treatment can begin before permanent damage is done to the brain.

Originally published on Dec 02, 2021

FAQs About Dementia

Can a person recover from dementia?

Dementia refers to a variety of conditions that cause cognitive impairment. It is incurable to this day, but there are ways to slow its progression.

What age can I get dementia?

People over the age of 65 are more likely to develop dementia, but younger people can also be affected. If detected early and treated, you can prolong your mental capacity and slow the progression of the disease.

Does dementia cause death?

Death may not be directly caused by memory loss caused by dementia. In contrast, dementia may result in death if certain organs in the body are affected. Also, dementia patients are more vulnerable to accidents due to their lack of cognitive ability.

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