What is Dementia? The Complete Guide for Beginners

Dementia is the loss of key cognitive functions such as reasoning, remembering, thinking, problem-solving abilities, comprehension, learning capacity, and judgment. Dementia can be chronic or progressive. Whatever the case, the syndrome ends up affecting one’s life significantly. For instance, some people with dementia are known to have a hard time controlling their emotions and maintaining healthy relationships with others. Severe dementia also forces the patient to rely on others for basic activities like dressing up and maintaining personal hygiene.

The severity of dementia varies greatly. Some cases are usually mild, where the patient experiences deterioration in cognitive functions, but they can still undertake most of their daily tasks. In other cases, the condition gets so severe that the patient has to depend on someone else to do even the simplest tasks.

Symptoms of Dementia

The signs and symptoms of dementia can be categorized into three stages:

Early Stage

Most signs of Dementia go unnoticed in the early stage because they are usually mild. These signs include:

  • Getting lost in places, e.g., shopping centers
  • Losing track of time easily.
  • Being forgetful about some simple details like appointments, events, misplacing items like keys, wallets, etc.

Middle Stage

At this stage, the symptoms become more apparent. This stage is masked with the following signs and symptoms:

  • Difficulty communicating
  • Getting lost not just in big places but also at home
  • Becoming very forgetful. Patients can even forget the names of their family members and friends.
  • Behavioral changes like asking the same questions multiple times and becoming unnecessarily moody
  • Some patients may require assistance with personal care at this stage.
  • Losing track of time

Late Stage

At the last stage, the patient experiences the full effects of dementia. They also tend to be more severe at this stage than in the other two. The symptoms here are:

  • Not only do the patients forget names of relatives and friends, but they also struggle to recognize them.
  • Getting lost becomes very easy. They might even forget that they are at home.
  • They lose track of time almost entirely.
  • Difficulty walking and doing other basic physical activities due to loss of coordination and some motor functions.
  • They become completely dependent on assistance for self-care
  • Behavioral changes become more pronounced and aggressive.

As dementia progresses, the patient experiences psychological changes, such as:

  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Increased anxiety
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Confusion and disorientation

What Causes Dementia?

Dementia is typically caused by damage or death of brain cells. Once this happens, communication between the brain cells is affected, causing a gradual decline in some cognitive functions. The specific functions affected may depend on the part of the brain that has been affected. For instance, if it’s the brain cells that are responsible for memory, the patient will experience loss of memory or problem forming new memories.

But, what causes damage or death of the brain cells?

  • Injury – Traumatic brain injury can affect the brain cells and may escalate to dementia. This is especially common among athletes and sportsmen like football players and boxers. It is common in cases involving repetitive brain injuries. Head injuries caused by fatal accidents can also affect brain cells and cause dementia.
  • Vascular Dementia – This is also known as multi-infarct dementia. Certain conditions, such as stroke, can affect the supply of oxygen to the brain cells. This results in the death or damage of the cells, thereby diminishing the brain functions of the specific area affected.
  • Central Nervous System Infections – Infections that affect the central nervous system can also cause dementia. Some of these infections are Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, HIV, and meningitis.
  • Substance Abuse – Excessive or long-term usage of alcohol can damage brain cells and cause dementia.

Types of Dementia

  1. Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of all cases of dementia. The condition causes changes in brain structure stimulated by the accumulation of proteins. This build-up causes “plaques” that interfere with the brain cells’ ability to transmit messages and, ultimately, causing the brain cells to die.

Alzheimer’s Disease develops gradually, starting with very mild symptoms that are easy to miss to more severe ones, leading to total dependence on someone else for self-care.

A few of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are memory loss, misplacing things, difficulty communicating (both orally and through written words), loss of time, getting lost in places, difficulty in proper decision-making and problem-solving, poor judgment, changes in behavior and mood. The patient becomes easily confused, anxious, and depressed.

Alzheimer’s Disease cannot be cured or prevented. However, some medications can slow down its progression. In fact, if detected and treated early, these drugs can help the patient enjoy some independence for a bit longer before they are forced to rely on other people for help with their daily tasks.

  1. Vascular Dementia

Vascular Dementia is caused by an interrupted supply of oxygen to the brain cells. It’s the most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s Disease. Oxygen is critical for the optimal functioning of blood cells. A few seconds of interrupted blood circulation in the brain is enough to cause severe damage and affect normal brain functions. Issues such as transient Ischaemic Attacks (TIAs) or larger, more severe strokes affect the blood supply to the brain, which damages the brain cells.

Vascular dementia usually occurs suddenly, unlike dementia caused by Alzheimer’s Disease. The good thing is some drugs and therapies can help to reduce its severity.

  1. Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal dementia affects two parts of the brain:

  • Frontal Lobe – Dementia affecting the frontal lobes can be called Pick’s Disease or Frontal Dementia. It mostly affects functions such as problem-solving, decision making, empathy, planning, motivation, personality, and social functioning.
  • Temporal Lobe – Dementia affecting this part of the brain is also called Semantic Dementia. It affects comprehension, language, and ability to communicate (speech) and may also impair memory formation because the hippocampus is found in the temporal lobe.

Frontotemporal dementia is progressive in nature, so the symptoms will be mild in the early stage and worsen with time. It’s also common among middle-aged people from 45 years old. One problem with this type of dementia is that the symptoms are usually missed by both the patient, family, and medical professionals (sometimes for up to 5 years). By the time it’s detected, the condition has progressed, and the patient is now experiencing moderate to severe symptoms.

  1. Mixed Dementia

Mixed Dementia is a type of dementia characterized by the co-occurrence of both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. It occurs mostly in seniors who had progressive dementia that worsen with time and have also been diagnosed with cardiovascular diseases.

Other rare types of dementia are:

  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
  • Lewy Body Dementia
  • Pick’s Disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

How is Dementia Diagnosed?

A dementia diagnosis can be a bit tricky because there is no one specific medical test for the condition. Also, some of the symptoms of dementia overlap with other diseases and some drug interactions. This means that physicians have to run multiple tests when diagnosing dementia. They will analyze your behavior, functions, memory, comprehension, thinking, and other brain functions. They will also do some medical tests to ensure that the symptoms you are experiencing are not caused by other drugs you might be taking. MRI and CT scans are also common when diagnosing dementia.

Diagnosing the specific type of dementia you have is even more challenging due to how similar the symptoms are. You may have to consult psychologists and neurologists to establish the exact type of dementia you are experiencing.

Diagnosing dementia is very challenging, yet early intervention is critical in dealing with the condition. The earlier you can get the help you need, the faster you can slow the disease’s progression and improve your overall quality of life. Therefore, we encourage you to check in with a physician as soon as you notice any of the symptoms discussed above.

Dementia Risk Factors and Prevention

Age and genetics are the two biggest risk factors associated with dementia. The others are smoking, excessive/prolonged alcohol use, diabetes, high homocysteine levels in the blood, and high LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol).

The best way to prevent dementia is by living a healthy life. Stay active by exercising regularly and make sure to eat a healthy diet. You can also reduce the risk of getting dementia through stress management, social engagement, getting quality sleep, staying active mentally, and maintaining good vascular health.