When we think about growing old, we may fear losing our memory. Although we naturally lose some short-term memory with aging, not everyone is at risk for dementia. It’s important to distinguish between normal age-related memory changes and the more severe memory impairment associated with dementia.
You may have heard of dementia, but what exactly is dementia?
Dementia is a medical term that doctors use that refers to a group of cognitive impairments that affect memory, thinking, communication, reasoning skills, and daily functioning. While this type of illness significantly impairs an individual’s ability to function daily. Dementia affects multiple aspects of a person’s mental and social well-being. While dementia itself is not a specific disease itself. Instead, it is a syndrome characterized by a collection of symptoms resulting from underlying brain disorders or conditions.
The Most Common Cause of Dementia
If you have dementia, you will most likely have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. However, there are several other types of dementia, each with distinct causes and characteristics. While the symptoms of dementia can vary widely depending on the type and stage of the condition. With this disease, you will most likely see symptoms, which include memory loss, language difficulty, communication issues, impaired judgment, confusion, and changes in mood and behavior. While this list is not exhaustive, these are the most common forms of dementia diagnosed in our community.
Did you know that Alzheimer’s Disease is characterized by abnormal protein deposits in the brain? Alzheimer’s leads to the progressive loss of memory, thinking abilities, and, eventually, the ability to perform daily tasks.
Vascular Dementia is another type of brain disease caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, often resulting from stroke or other vascular conditions. Unlike Alzheimer’s Disease, the symptoms of vascular dementia will vary depending on the region of impaired blood flow to the brain and the severity of brain damage.
Lewy Body Dementia is the result of Lewy bodies growing in the brain. Lewy bodies are the abnormal protein deposits found in the brain. This type of dementia is associated with cognitive fluctuations, visual hallucinations, and motor symptoms similar to those seen in Parkinson’s Disease.
Frontotemporal Dementia isn’t just one type of dementia. FD is a group of disorders that primarily affects the parts of the brain, leading to significant changes in behavior, personality, and language abilities. This type of dementia tends to occur earlier in life than Alzheimer’s Disease.
Mixed Dementia is a combination of two or more different varieties of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, leading to mixed symptoms. Another form of mixed dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease with Lewy body dementia.
While not all Parkinson’s patients have dementia, Parkinson’s Disease Dementia may develop in later stages of Parkinson’s Disease. These cognitive changes often occur along with the declining motor and locomotion symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
Huntington’s Disease is a genetic disorder causing progressive motor and cognitive symptoms, including dementia. This Disease typically develops in middle adulthood.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is a rare, rapidly progressing neurological disorder that leads to cognitive decline, muscle stiffness, and twitching.
How Can I distinguish between Dementia and normal cognitive decline?
Although common memory changes are a normal part of the aging process, regular memory changes that worsen over time are not a regular part of getting older. Just because your mom has forgotten where she’s placed her car keys several times may not be a sign she has a type of dementia. When looking at the behaviors of your loved ones on a day-to-day basis, it’s vital to remember that you’ll need to distinguish between normal age-related memory changes and the more severe memory impairment associated with dementia.
Here are typical differences between symptoms of dementia and “normal” brain decline as we age.
Frequency and Severity of Forgetfulness
- “Normal” Brain Aging: It’s common to occasionally forget names, details, or where you place an item. These lapses are usually minor and don’t significantly disrupt daily life.
- The Difference with Dementia: is that forgetfulness becomes more frequent and severe. Individuals with dementia may forget important events, conversations held an hour ago, or how to perform familiar tasks. These memory gaps can significantly impact their ability to function independently.
Memory Loss vs. Cognitive Decline
- “Normal” Brain Aging: Age-related memory changes are often limited to forgetting names, appointments, or minor details. Cognitive abilities, such as problem-solving and reasoning, remain relatively intact. However, they may take more time to process information.
- The Difference with Dementia: While memory loss is only one aspect of cognitive decline, individuals with dementia also experience difficulties with communication, reasoning, judgment, and performing daily tasks. Does your father remember how to bathe himself, or is he forgetting he needs to feed his dog daily? These are not regular signs of typical cognitive decline as we age. If you see symptoms such as these, you will want to find a medical provider and schedule an assessment as soon as possible.
Awareness of Memory Lapses
- “Normal” Brain Aging: Individuals are usually aware of their memory lapses and can often recall forgotten information with reminders or time.
- The Difference with Dementia: People with dementia may be less aware of their memory deficits and might struggle to retrieve forgotten information even with cues. Your dad or mom may even show signs of anxiety when they can’t remember specific instances or times of the day to the point where they become agitated.
Impact on Activities of Daily Living
- “Normal” Brain Aging: Age-related memory changes do not typically interfere significantly with daily functioning. People can compensate for minor memory lapses without significant disruptions.
- The Difference with Dementia: Memory loss and cognitive decline in dementia can lead to challenges in managing finances, following directions (especially when driving to familiar places), preparing meals, and maintaining personal hygiene.
Progression of Symptoms
- “Normal” Brain Aging: Normal age-related memory changes are stable over time and do not progress into more severe cognitive impairment.
- The Difference with Dementia: Symptoms of dementia will progressively worsen over time, often leading to increased dependency on others for daily activities.
Consistency of Forgetfulness
- “Normal” Brain Aging: Memory lapses tend to be sporadic and do not necessarily follow a consistent pattern.
- The Difference with Dementia: Memory problems persistently become more prominent and debilitating as the condition progresses.
The Top Ten Warning Signs of Dementia
Consider the amount and severity of memory changes you’ve seen with your loved one. If you feel that your parent’s memory has progressively worsened over the past three to six months and you’re concerned about memory changes, consider a professional evaluation from a healthcare provider. Early detection of cognitive issues usually leads to better care, quality of life, and more robust support for the dementia patient.
Here are the top ten most common signs that your family member may be experiencing one or more forms of dementia:
1. **Memory Loss** A common symptom of dementia you’ll see in your loved one is persistent memory loss, especially forgetting recently learned information, important dates, or special events such as birthdays or anniversaries. If your loved one continually asks for the same information repeatedly, especially over the same day, that is also a red flag.
2. **Difficulty with Planning and Problem-Solving** Individuals with dementia might have trouble following plans or working with numbers, such as managing finances or following a recipe.
3. **Challenges with Familiar Tasks** People may need help to complete tasks they used to do easily, such as driving to a familiar location, remembering the rules of a game, or using household appliances.
4. **Confusion with Time and Place** Dementia can lead to confusion about dates, seasons, and the passage of time. Individuals might forget the location they are at. They may also forget how they arrived at their destination.
5. **Understanding VImages and Spatial Relationships** Difficulties judging distances, identifying colors, and reading can arise. This may lead to problems with driving and coordination.
6. **New Problems with Words and Speaking** Individuals might need help to follow or join a conversation, repeat themselves frequently, or assistance or prompts to find the right word to use in conversations.
7. **Misplacing Things** Individuals with dementia may put things in unusual places and cannot retrace their steps to find them. They may accuse others of stealing when they can’t locate items.
8. **Decreased or Poor Judgment** Individuals might make poor decisions, like giving away large sums of money to telemarketers or neglecting personal hygiene.
9. **Withdrawal from Work or Social Activities** Dementia can cause a person to lose interest in hobbies, work projects, or social activities they once enjoyed. They might avoid being with others due to changes they’re experiencing.
10. **Mood and Personality Changes** Dementia can lead to mood swings, confusion, frustration, anxiety, and paranoia. The person’s personality might change noticeably, making them irritable, suspicious, fearful, or apathetic.
While many types of dementia are progressive and have no cure, early diagnosis and management can help improve the quality of life for individuals with this disease and their caregivers. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, seeking medical attention is essential.
Treatments for dementia vary depending on the type and severity, but may include medication, cognitive therapies, lifestyle interventions, and support services to manage symptoms and provide appropriate care. If you suspect you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of dementia, please make sure to consult a medical professional for an evaluation and guidance on care. A healthcare professional, especially one who specializes in geriatric medicine, can conduct a dementia evaluation to find the cause of your family member’s symptoms and recommend appropriate next steps.