Dementia isn’t a specific disease. Instead, dementia describes a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning.
Though dementia generally involves memory loss, memory loss has different causes. So memory loss alone doesn’t mean you have dementia.
Dementia symptoms vary depending on the cause, but common signs and symptoms include:
Memory loss, which is usually noticed by a spouse or someone else
Difficulty communicating or finding words
Difficulty reasoning or problem-solving
Difficulty handling complex tasks
Difficulty with planning and organizing
Difficulty with coordination and motor functions
Confusion and disorientation
Dementia involves damage of nerve cells in the brain, which can occur in several areas of the brain. Dementia affects people differently, depending on the area of the brain affected.
Dementias are often grouped by what they have in common, such as the part of the brain that’s affected or whether they worsen over time (progressive dementias). Some dementias, such as those caused by a reaction to medications or vitamin deficiencies, might improve with treatment.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of a progressive dementia in older adults, but there are a number of causes of dementia. Depending on the cause, some dementia symptoms can be reversed.
TYPES OF DEMENTIA:
Types of dementias that progress and aren’t reversible include:
Alzheimer’s disease. In people age 65 and older, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.
Although the cause of Alzheimer’s disease isn’t known, plaques and tangles are often found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Plaques are clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid, and tangles are fibrous tangles made up of tau protein.
Certain genetic factors might make it more likely that people will develop Alzheimer’s.
Vascular dementia. This second most common type of dementia occurs as a result of damage to the vessels that supply blood to your brain. Blood vessel problems can be caused by stroke or other blood vessel conditions.
Lewy body dementia. Lewy bodies are abnormal clumps of protein that have been found in the brains of people with Lewy body dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. This is one of the more common types of progressive dementia.
Frontotemporal dementia. This is a group of diseases characterized by the breakdown (degeneration) of nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, the areas generally associated with personality, behavior and language.
As with other dementias, the cause isn’t known.
Mixed dementia. Autopsy studies of the brains of people 80 and older who had dementia indicate that many had a combination of Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and Lewy body dementia. Studies are ongoing to determine how having mixed dementia affects symptoms and treatments.
Many factors can eventually lead to dementia. Some factors, such as age, can’t be changed. Others can be addressed to reduce your risk.
Age. The risk rises as you age, especially after age 65. However, dementia isn’t a normal part of aging, and dementia can occur in younger people.
Family history. Having a family history of dementia puts you at greater risk of developing the condition. However, many people with a family history never develop symptoms, and many people without a family history do. Tests to determine whether you have certain genetic mutations are available.
By middle age, many people with Down syndrome develop early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Mild cognitive impairment. This involves difficulties with memory but without loss of daily function. It puts people at higher risk of dementia.
Risk factors you can change:
You might be able to control the following risk factors of dementia.
Heavy alcohol use. If you drink large amounts of alcohol, you might have a higher risk of dementia. Some studies, however, have shown that moderate amounts of alcohol might have a protective effect.
Cardiovascular risk factors. These include high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, buildup of fats in your artery walls (atherosclerosis) and obesity.
Depression. Although not yet well-understood, late-life depression might indicate the development of dementia.
Diabetes. If you have diabetes, you might have an increased risk of dementia, especially if it’s poorly controlled.
Smoking. Smoking might increase your risk of developing dementia and blood vessel (vascular) diseases.
Sleep apnea. People who snore and have episodes where they frequently stop breathing while asleep may have reversible memory loss.
Dementia can affect many body systems and, therefore, the ability to function. Dementia can lead to:
Many people with dementia eventually reduce or stop their intake of nutrients. Ultimately, they may be unable to chew and swallow.
Pneumonia. Difficulty swallowing increases the risk of choking or aspirating food into the lungs, which can block breathing and cause pneumonia.
Inability to perform self-care tasks. As dementia progresses, it can interfere with bathing, dressing, brushing hair or teeth, using the toilet independently and taking medications accurately.
Personal safety challenges. Some day-to-day situations can present safety issues for people with dementia, including driving, cooking and walking alone.
Death. Late-stage dementia results in coma and death, often from infection.
There’s no sure way to prevent dementia, but there are steps you can take that might help. More research is needed, but it might be beneficial to do the following:
Keep your mind active. Mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, solving puzzles and playing word games, and memory training might delay the onset of dementia and decrease its effects.
Be physically and socially active. Physical activity and social interaction might delay the onset of dementia and reduce its symptoms. Move more and aim for 150 minutes of exercise a week.
Quit smoking. Some studies have shown smoking in middle age and beyond may increase your risk of dementia and blood vessel (vascular) conditions. Quitting smoking might reduce your risk and will improve your health.
Get enough vitamin D. Research suggests that people with low levels of vitamin D in their blood are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. You can get vitamin D through certain foods, supplements and sun exposure.
More study is needed before an increase in vitamin D intake is recommended for preventing dementia, but it’s a good idea to make sure you get adequate vitamin D.
Lower your blood pressure. High blood pressure might lead to a higher risk of some types of dementia. More research is needed to determine whether treating high blood pressure may reduce the risk of dementia.
Maintain a healthy diet. Eating a healthy diet is important for many reasons, but a diet such as the Mediterranean diet — rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in certain fish and nuts — might promote health and lower your risk of developing dementia.