Dementia can sneak up on you as you age, and it’s easy to miss the signs because they’re usually gradual. For example: your mother has started forgetting things more often, gets confused easily, and repeats the same story over and over. Those could be signs of dementia, or they could just be part of the normal aging process.
Dementia is a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities that are serious enough to interfere with your daily life and activities. It happens most often when you’re older than 65. While everyone forgets things or behaves differently on occasion, you may have dementia if you experience these changes more often and they get worse over time.
Dementia isn’t a single disease with a single cause. Rather it’s a syndrome – a group of symptoms that affect thinking, social abilities, and memory. Dementia can be caused by several things, and some of its symptoms can be reversed or even prevented with the right care.
You or your loved one might suffer from different types of symptoms depending on the cause of your dementia. However, you may recognize these symptoms:
- Memory loss (typically one of the first symptoms of dementia)
- Difficulty with regular tasks such as balancing a checkbook or following a recipe
- Difficulty recognizing people, events, or places
- Difficulty with reasoning or problem-solving
- Neglect of personal safety, nutrition, and bathing
- Personality changes
- Hallucinations or paranoia
- Difficulty communicating or finding the right words
- Difficulty regulating moods like anxiety, aggression, or depression
The presence of memory loss alone doesn’t mean you have or will get dementia. People who have some trouble remembering things but can still do normal daily activities on their own have mild cognitive impairment. Sometimes a person with mild cognitive impairment gets worse and develops dementia, while other times, the memory problems stay the same for many years or even get better.
Dementia might look different for you than it does for someone else — it depends on the area of your brain that’s affected. There are different types of dementia, all resulting from brain cells that stop functioning properly.
- Most people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease, which causes changes in the brain slowly, usually over many years.
- The next most common cause of dementia is vascular dementia, which happens when the brain doesn’t get enough blood due to a stroke (including small strokes that may initially go unnoticed).
- Less common forms of dementia include:
- Dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease – caused by a decline in nerve cells as Parkinson’s disease progresses
- Frontotemporal dementia – caused by a decline in the lobes of the brain that control personality, behavior, and language
- Dementia with Lewy bodies – caused by protein deposits that develop in nerve cells in the brain
You can also have what’s called mixed dementia, which is more than one type of dementia at a time, with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia being the most common combination.
There currently is no definitive blood test or imaging study that tells your doctor you have dementia. Instead, doctors and other memory specialists gather information from several sources to help make a diagnosis of dementia including:
- A memory test such as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment
- Asking the patient and family or friends about life at home – are there things you or your loved one could once do easily but now struggle with?
- Lab tests
- Imaging of the brain – MRI or CT scan
- Appointments with a specialist, like a neurologist or neuropsychologist, for more detailed memory testing if the diagnosis isn’t clear
While some medications can help with some symptoms and may slow down the pace of the disease in some people, there currently isn’t a cure for dementia. However, there are a number of things you and your doctor can start doing right now to help slow down the process and maintain joy and purpose in your life or the life of your loved one.
- Manage medical conditions that can make memory worse. Many health conditions cause problems with thinking and can make dementia seem worse than it may really be. These include but are not limited to:
- Untreated thyroid disease
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Heart failure
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- High blood pressure
- Kidney failure and liver failure
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Work with your doctor to stop non-essential medications that could affect your memory
- These include but are not limited to diphenhydramine (Benadryl), benzodiazepines (lorazepam/Ativan, alprazolam/Xanax, and many others), and a variety of sleep aids.
- Go to all of your appointments
- Focus on taking care of yourself
- Ask for support
The best treatment for dementia is prevention. Taking great care of yourself may help you delay the onset of dementia or prevent it altogether. Start with these ideas and remember that it’s never too late to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
- Eat a brain-healthy diet. The same heart-health benefits you get from eating a Mediterranean diet (whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, and olive oil) will also protect your brain.
- Protect your heart and cardiovascular health. Quit smoking. Work to get your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar at a healthy level. Maintain a healthy weight. Keeping yourself in tip-top cardiovascular health will keep the blood vessels in your brain healthy and help prevent dementia.
- Physical exercise. Maintaining a regular exercise routine can help prevent certain types of dementia. Exercise brings blood and oxygen to your brain and keeps it healthy.
- Keep your mind active. Play games and word puzzles to keep your mind active.
- Be socially active. Social activity has been found to help delay the onset of dementia. So spend time with your friends. Get out of the house, even if you don’t feel like it. Your brain will thank you!
Whether you or a loved one is starting to experience the symptoms of dementia or you’re looking to prevent it in the future, talking with your primary care doctor is a good place to start. Your doctor can help you pinpoint your risks and help you get healthy so your mind will stay healthy too. Your healthcare provider can also help make the right diagnosis, follow you over time, and help you and your care partner access various resources in the community that will help you can live the healthiest, happiest life possible.