Dementia is not a single disease in itself, but a general term to describe symptoms of impairment in memory, communication, and thinking.
While the likelihood of having it increases with age, it is not a normal part of aging.
Light cognitive impairments, such as poorer short-term memory, can happen as a normal part of aging. This is known as age-related cognitive decline rather than dementia because it does not cause significant problems.
Dementia describes two or more types of symptom that are severe enough to affect daily activities.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that:
- just over a tenth of people aged 65 years or more have Alzheimer’s disease
- this proportion rises to about a third of people aged 85 and older
- Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-80 percent of all cases of dementia
It can be caused by brain cell death, and neurodegenerative disease – progressive brain cell death that happens over time – is associated with most dementias.
However it is not known if the dementia causes the brain cell death, or the brain cell death causes the dementia.
But, as well as progressive brain cell death, like that seen in Alzheimer’s disease, it can be caused by a head injury, a stroke, or a brain tumor, among other causes.
- Vascular dementia (also called multi-infarct dementia) – resulting from brain cell death caused by conditions such as cerebrovascular disease, for example, stroke. This prevents normal blood flow, depriving brain cells of oxygen.
- Injury – post-traumatic dementia is directly related to brain cell death caused by injury.
- Some types of traumatic brain injury – particularly if repetitive, such as those received by sports players – have been linked to certain dementias appearing later in life. Evidence is weak, however, that a single brain injury raises the likelihood of having a degenerative dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease.
A person with dementia may show any of the symptoms listed below, mostly due to memory loss – some of which they may notice themselves, while caregivers or healthcare workers may only pick others up.
- Recent memory loss – a sign of this might be asking the same question repeatedly.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks – for example, making a drink or cooking a meal.
- Problems communicating – difficulty with language; forgetting simple words or using the wrong ones.
- Disorientation – getting lost on a previously familiar street, for example.
- Problems with abstract thinking – for instance, dealing with money.
- Misplacing things – forgetting the location of everyday items such as keys, or wallets, for example.
- Mood changes – sudden and unexplained changes in outlook or disposition.
- Personality changes – perhaps becoming irritable, suspicious or fearful.
- Loss of initiative – showing less interest in starting something or going somewhere.
As the patient ages, late-stage dementia symptoms tend to worsen.
Other quality-of-life care
“Brain training” may help improve cognitive functioning and help deal with forgetfulness in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. This might involve the use of mnemonics and other memory aids such as computerized recall devices.
Certain risk factors are known to be associated with the condition. However, age is the biggest predictor. Other risk factors include:
- smoking and alcohol use
- atherosclerosis (cardiovascular disease causing the arteries to narrow)
- high levels of “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein)
- above-average blood levels of homocysteine (a type of amino acid)
- mild cognitive impairment can sometimes, but not always, lead to dementia
Author: Akwesi Osei
An avid reader and writer who has written articles for HypeNationGh, LoudsoundGh and akwesiosei.wordpress.com.
Currently the blogger and owner of The Health Bro