Dementia isn’t a single disease; it’s an “umbrella” term — like heart disease — that covers a variety of specific medical conditions, all caused by abnormal brain changes. These changes cause a decline in cognitive abilities, as well as in behavior, feelings, and relationships, all severe enough to impair daily life and independent function.
At Memphis Neurology, our expert team of neurologists diagnoses and treats neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia at their offices in Germantown, Tennessee, and Southaven, Mississippi. Here’s what the team wants you to know about the common signs of dementia and how they help you manage your symptoms.
What causes dementia?
The numbers are staggering. Of men and women at least 65 years old, an estimated 5.0 million were living with some form of dementia in 2014, and that’s projected to grow to almost 14 million by 2060. Despite its prevalence among the elderly, though, dementia is NOT a normal part of aging.
All forms of dementia are caused by damage to brain cells, interfering with the ability of the cells to communicate with each other. The brain has many distinct regions, each of which controls different functions (e.g., memory, language, movement). When cells in a particular region are damaged, that region can’t function normally.
Different types of dementia are associated with specific types of damage in particular regions of the brain. For example, Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases, is characterized by the build-up of proteins known as amyloid plaques and tau tangles, both inside and outside the cells. Those proteins interfere with the normal cell communication process.
The brain region known as the hippocampus is the center of learning and memory in the brain; unfortunately, the cells in this region are often the first to be damaged, which is why memory loss is usually one of the earliest symptoms of the disease.
The bleeding and blockages characteristic of vascular dementia, the second most common form, can happen within any of the blood vessels, meaning the cognitive loss progresses in a different way from Alzheimer’s.
Common signs of dementia
Every person is an individual, which means not everyone will show the same signs and symptoms in the same combination. Common signs of most types of dementia, though, include:
- Memory loss, poor judgment, and confusion
- Trouble speaking, understanding, and expressing thoughts
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Trouble handling money responsibly and paying bills
- Repeating questions put to them
- Using unusual words to refer to familiar objects
- Taking longer to do normal daily tasks
- Losing interest in daily activities
- Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia
- Acting impulsively
- Not caring about other people’s feelings
- Losing balance and problems with movement
Most changes in the brain that lead to dementia are permanent and worsen over time.
There’s no single test to determine if someone has dementia. Doctors diagnose the condition based on a detailed medical history, physical examination, laboratory tests, and the characteristic changes in thinking, ability to function, and altered behavior associated with each type. Unfortunately, however, the symptoms and brain changes of different dementias can overlap, and a number of other conditions have similar symptoms, making a precise diagnosis difficult.
How you treat dementia depends on its cause, but in many cases, the cause is unknown. Still, getting an early diagnosis can help you and your family manage the signs and symptoms and plan ahead.
In the early stages of dementia, patients often can continue with their everyday activities. As the disease progresses, though, they need to adopt new strategies to adjust, and much of this falls to the caregiver, as the patient can no longer think clearly all the time..
There is some hope. Two new treatments — aducanumab (Aduhelm™) and lecanemab (Leqembi™) — have just come on the market. They both remove beta-amyloid plaques from the brain, which slows cognitive and functional decline in people living with early Alzheimer’s. Other medications can temporarily slow the decline of dementia symptoms and improve the quality of life for the person living with Alzheimer's and their caregivers. Some of these same medications are used to treat the symptoms of other types of dementia.
Research reported at the 2019 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® suggests that making a number of healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and getting regular exercise and cognitive stimulation, may decrease the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
Have you noticed any of the common signs of dementia in a loved one? Your next step should be bringing them into Memphis Neurology for an evaluation and accurate diagnosis. To get started, give us a call at either of our locations, or book a consultation online. We can help.