WHAT IS DEMENTIA?
Dementia is a gradual loss of mental functions such as the ability to think, remember, reason, and plan. Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a cluster of symptoms and can be caused by a number of diseases. As the disease gets worse, a person with dementia is eventually no longer able to do everyday tasks. Their behavior and personality also change.
Dementia is not a normal part of aging. In normal aging, problems with memory loss develop slowly. As healthy people get older, they may forget names, phone numbers, or where objects are. However, healthy older people usually remember or figure out how to look up a forgotten name or address. People with dementia forget things far more often. They also have much more trouble with problem- solving and thinking things through.
See your primary care provider if you are unsure whether symptoms are due to normal aging or to another cause.
HOW IS DEMENTIA DIFFERENT FROM ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE?
Dementia is the collection of symptoms and signs like forgetting or losing things, or needing help to do things. The most common cause is Alzheimer’s disease. It is an irreversible disease of the brain in which the progressive degeneration of brain cells causes thinking ability and memory to deteriorate. Alzheimer’s disease also affects behavior, mood and emotions, and the ability to perform daily living activities.
HOW DOES IT OCCUR?
Damaged brain cells cause the symptoms of dementia. These cells can no longer store memories or work with information in the normal way. While the most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, a large single stroke or many small strokes over a period of time also can cause dementia, as can a number of other diseases including:.
- vascular disease
- Lewy body disease (a disorder similar to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s)
- Huntington’s disease
- multiple sclerosis
- Pick’s Disease
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
- Parkinson’s disease
As the disease causing the dementia gets worse, more brain functions are lost.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Many symptoms are possible. At the beginning of dementia, symptoms may be mild. However, as time passes, people may have more of the following symptoms:
- memory problems (trouble remembering recent events or trouble remembering people, places, times, and dates)
- poor judgment and not being able to understand the results of their actions
- decline in thinking ability (for example, not being able to figure out the correct order in which to put clothing on)
- trouble following instructions or staying with a task, causing problems paying bills, fixing meals, shopping, or taking medicines
- lack of interest in what is going on around them, less participation in activities previously enjoyed, or withdrawal from other people
- loss of interest in food and less concern about looking neat and being clean
- irritability and a tendency to overreact; physical outbursts
- wandering away from home or getting lost
- Believing that someone is taking money or belongings or that family members are not who they say they are.
- repeating the same action or words
- hiding possessions
As the disease gets worse, it causes problems with control of the body. The person may:
- be unable to control their bowel or bladder
- be unsteady while walking, leading to falls and the eventual inability to walk
- forget how to eat or have trouble chewing and swallowing
- have a hard time speaking and thinking of the right words and eventually become unable to speak
- Not recognize close friends and family members.
HOW IS IT DIAGNOSED?
No single test can tell if a person has dementia. The diagnosis is made through a systematic assessment that eliminates other possible causes. Speak to your primary care provider about how long the symptoms have been present and whether they started suddenly or came on gradually.
The primary care provider will do a physical exam and speak to the person with the disease and the care giver about symptoms to identify whether that person has had a stroke or has another condition that could cause the symptoms. The primary care provider will ask about health issues and any drug or alcohol use. The following tests also may be done:
- blood tests
- brain wave tracing (EEG, or electroencephalogram)
- heart wave tracing (EKG, or electrocardiogram)
- CT Scan
- tests to check how well the person can concentrate, remember, understand, and make decisions (e.g., mental status exam)
HOW IS IT TREATED?
There is no cure for most causes of dementia. A few medical conditions, such as encephalitis (a viral infection in the brain), cause symptoms of dementia that can be reversed with treatment.
Medicine may help. Donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Reminyl), and rivastigmine (Exelon) are drugs that may slow memory loss early in the disease. Memantine (Ebixa) may help slow memory loss in later stages of the disease. None of these medicines can cure or reverse Alzheimer’s disease. Not all people with dementia should take these medicines. Those whose disease is very severe will not benefit. Talk to your primary care provider about these issues. Other medicines continue to be studied to see whether they might be helpful.
PROGRESSION OF DEMENTIA
Most dementias get worse over time. Your primary care provider can explain more about what to expect.
As dementia gets more severe, the person with dementia is not able to manage important parts of their life’s affairs. They lose the ability to be responsible for themselves when traveling. They should stop driving. They also lose the ability to cook, clean, or use household tools safely.
Making changes in the home and in family routines is important as the dementia gets worse. Some families are able to care for very ill loved ones, while others have to arrange for the ill person to live where they can get special care. Nursing facilities or adult family homes are the most common types of facilities used for this purpose.
As dementia worsens, the affected person loses the ability to state clearly what they want, especially how they want important decisions to be made. Helping a person with early dementia think about and state their wishes for healthcare treatment directives, such as a personal directive (e.g., a living will), and their funeral is sad and hard to do, but having that information written down and available later is very important.
WHAT CAN A FAMILY MEMBER OR FRIEND DO?
The most important thing is to understand that a person with dementia is not responsible for his or her behavior. It occurs because of damage to brain cells. A person with dementia may say or do hurtful things that family and friends must overlook.
Call the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia (ASNS) for confidential, one on one support, education, information, and referral to programs for persons with dementia and caregivers.
It can be hard to know how to care for someone with dementia. In time they may need care 24 hours a day. A big part of treatment is making sure the person is safe and well cared for. Keep these things in mind:
- Give the person choices when you can.
- Decide what kind of care they need and who will give them care.
- See that anyone caring for them treats them with respect.
Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia (ASNS)