Contrary to public belief, dementia is not one specific disease, but rather a range of symptoms that are associated with cognitive decline and a reduction in a person’s ability to remain active and independent. There was a time when dementia was referred to as “senility” or having “senior moments,” but these monikers suggest that dementia is a normal part of aging, and this concept simply isn’t accurate.
Alzheimer’s disease accounts for up to 80% of all dementia cases closely followed by vascular dementia, which typically occurs after a stroke. Dementia may also be caused by vitamin deficiencies and thyroid problems. These last two types are reversible in nature.
Signs and Symptoms
It’s important to note that signs and symptoms of dementia can greatly vary between individuals, but, generally speaking, there are a handful of core mental function impairments that suggest dementia:
- Communication and language skills
- Attention and focus
- Reasoning and judgment
- Visual perception
People suffering with dementia have problems with their short-term memory. While they can remember the name of their second grade teacher, they often have trouble remembering where they put their purse or wallet and lose track of appointments and paying bills.
Dementia is progressive. Symptoms may at first be mild and then slowly and gradually become worse and worse. Signs and symptoms should not be ignored. If you or a loved one are experiencing any change in memory or thought process, it’s important to recognize something may be wrong and make an appointment to visit your doctor.
Causes of Dementia
Dementia is caused when there has been some kind of damage to the brain. This damage then inhibits the brain cells’ ability to “talk” to each other. When brain cells are negatively affected in this way, the person has trouble thinking, behaving and feeling normally.
The varying types of dementia are caused by damage that occurs in different regions of the brain. For instance, with Alzheimer’s disease, cells become damaged in the hippocampus region of the brain, which is the epicenter of learning and memory.
How is Dementia Diagnosed?
Since dementia is not one specific disease, there is no one test to determine if someone has it. Alzheimer’s and other types of cognitive decline are diagnosed based on a careful medical history, physical examination, lab tests, and consideration of changes in thinking and behavior.
While doctors can diagnose dementia, determining the exact type can pose a challenge as symptoms of brain changes of different dementias can overlap. For this reason, it is sometimes necessary to make a follow-up appointment with a specialist, such as a neurologist or gero-psychologist for a more complete diagnosis.
Who’s at Risk?
Why is it that some people develop dementia while others live into their 80s and 90s and stay sharp as a tack? While the exact answer to this question is not yet known, we do know there are several factors that affect a person’s risk of developing dementia, namely age, genes, certain health factors and lifestyle.
The risk of developing dementia increases the older we get. It is estimated that approximately 1 in 70 people aged 65-69 have dementia while nearly 1 in 4 individuals aged 85-89 have been diagnosed.
Though it seems genes play a small role in determining whether or not we will develop dementia, if you have a family history of dementia, you may have a higher risk of developing it yourself. This in no way means you are destined’ to get it, just that your chances are slightly increased compared to those who have no family history.
How Does Dementia Affect a Person’s Life?
Dementia can have a negative impact on all aspects of a person’s life, as well as their family’s life. Not only is their ability to think clearly impacted, but so are their emotions and overall personality. Someone who has always been joyful may become moody and ‘difficult’ to deal with.
Since the symptoms worsen over time, everyday tasks will become increasingly difficult to handle and eventually all independence may be lost.
3 Things to Help Fight Dementia
Though there is no known cure, researchers have begun to understand that lifestyle choices play a significant role in whether or not we develop dementia. Here are three things you can do to lessen your risk of developing dementia:
Stay Physically Active
A study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas found that middle-agers who had higher levels of cardiovascular fitness were less likely to develop dementia as they aged. This discovery bolsters earlier research that found exercise may indeed be the key in maintaining a healthy mind as well as a healthy body.
An Optimized Diet Supports an Optimized Mind
Research is now indicating that our brains are affected by what we eat as well as what we don’t eat. A diet rich in fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats can decrease inflammation in the brain and provide the right nutrients to feed our cells. Some foods that are healthy choices are fatty fish, berries – particularly blueberries – greens such as spinach and kale, and green tea, which is high in antioxidants.
The Mediterranean diet is a great brain diet because it provides an individual with omega-3-rich fish, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, and fresh, colorful produce.
It’s important to mention that brain health can also be impacted by frequent blood sugar spikes. For this reason a diet low in sugar, especially processed sugars and refined flours, is important to maintain proper glucose levels.
And finally, some good news for coffee lovers: caffeine has been found to be effective in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. This does not mean you need to consume cups and cups of it every day. Just one two to cups will bring benefits.
You know the old phrase “use it or lose it,” well this applies to your brain as well. It’s incredibly important to keep your brain active as you age. Consider learning a new language or how to play a new instrument, read more, do the crossword puzzle, or play computer games. Heck, try to write that novel you always wanted to write, just be sure to keep your brain challenged and stimulated throughout your entire life.
Hopefully this post has not only given you important information that will help you identify the warning signs of dementia but also empower you to take action and lower your risk.
Be sure to keep an eye out for my next post where I will share information that is extremely important for people fighting cognitive decline.