Understanding Dementia

According to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people are living with dementia. Every year as the population ages there are close to 10 million new cases.

Although age is the greatest risk factor for dementia, dementia is NOT a normal part of aging.

While there is currently no cure for dementia caused by a variety of diseases, injury, or genetics new treatments are being explored tirelessly.

Studies show we can protect our brains and reduce our risk by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, knowing our numbers and managing high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Getting enough sleep, reducing stress, staying socially active, and protecting our brains from injury are also important.

In North Carolina, over 180,000 people are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia alone. In 2018, Alzheimer’s dementia was the 5th leading cause of death of North Carolinians in general and 4th in those over the age of 65.

Dementia is a broad term used to describe symptoms of cognitive decline.

It is an “umbrella” of symptoms of several underlying diseases and brain disorders.

Dementia itself is not a single disease, but instead is a general description of impairment in two or more areas of brain function. This can include memory, language, problem solving, impulse control, and other thinking skills.

These symptoms are severe enough to affect one’s ability to do everyday tasks.

Dementia is not a normal part of aging.

While Alzheimer’s disease is currently the most commonly known cause of dementia, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and mixed dementia (more than one type of dementia occurring in the same brain) can occur. While sometimes seeming similar, each of these diseases impact the brain in different ways, may have different symptoms and can cause changes in different abilities.

Dementia is NOT a normal part of aging. It occurs when something, such as disease or injury, goes wrong in the brain.

As we age, our mental processing and motor speed slows. Normal signs of aging include:

  • Ability to multi-task decreases
  • Changes in hearing and vision
  • Occasional forgetfulness
  • Learning new skills, information and technology takes more time and practice
  • Conversation requires more concentration
  • Trouble recalling names or appointments, but remember them later
  • Trouble finding the right words
  • Misplace things more often, but can retrace steps to find them
  • Changes to routines take more time to adapt to

Keep in mind that these are possible changes. It is important to remember that everyone is different and not everyone will have all of these changes.

These changes may turn into dementia, getting in the way of day-to-day life, but don’t let that be your first conclusion. Being tired, stressed, even being depressed can also lead to these changes.

Some memory changes are treatable or even reversible. Dementia-like symptoms may be a result of medication, thyroid problems, depression, or other health problems. Symptoms from these causes can be reversible. 

For true neuro-cognitive dementia, early treatment, both medicinal and non-medicinal, is more effective earlier than later. Early and accurate diagnosis allows for:

  • Opportunity for the person who has been diagnosed to be included in the process
  • More opportunity to participate in clinical trials.
  • Time to work on financial and healthcare planning or share end-of-life wishes

Accurate diagnosis, while sometimes difficult and slow to obtain, helps determine what to expect. Also, certain medications can have adverse effects in some types of dementia. The knowledge provided by an accurate diagnosis can often be reassuring to both the person living with dementia and their family. A name to put to the brain changes can also be a relief.

Early diagnosis allows for time to assemble a care team. Teams often include a general practitioner or primary care physician, but also friends and family, neighbors, and other doctors. Social workers, faith-based supports, financial planners, lawyers, a support group, and therapists might also be included. 

It affords more time to join a support group and get educations. Life definitely doesn’t stop with a diagnosis.