Degenerative Diseases: Dementia

The word dementia describes a wide set of symptoms; such as difficulty in thinking and problem-solving, communication problems and memory loss.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a degenerative disease. The structure and chemistry of the brain become increasingly damaged as the condition progresses.

The changes caused by dementia may be small in the initial stages but for some people, they may become severe enough to affect their daily life. A dementia sufferer may also experience changes in behaviour and moods.

What are the symptoms?

The common symptoms are cognitive, affecting thinking and memory. However, each person is unique and different types of dementia affect people in various ways.

The symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty in recalling recent events
  • Problems with concentrating, planning, making decisions and problem-solving
  • Difficulties in carrying out a sequence of tasks
  • The inability to follow a conversation
  • Visuospatial problems, such as an inability to judge distances
  • Losing track of the date or where they are

 
People with dementia may become frustrated, irritable, anxious, sad or easily upset. They may have visual hallucinations or delusions and start to believe things that aren’t true.

Dementia is progressive, with symptoms worsening over time – although this varies from person to person. Certain behaviours can develop, including:

• Repetitive questioning, restlessness, pacing and agitation
• Possible physical symptoms, including weight loss and muscle weakness
• Changes in sleeping patterns and appetite

Diseases that result in dementia

Diseases that damage the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease or strokes, can cause dementia. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause, occurs when brain cells become surrounded by abnormal proteins that damage their internal structure – brain cells lose their chemical connections and some die.

Vascular dementia occurs when blood vessels narrow or become blocked, reducing the oxygen supply to the brain. The symptoms can occur gradually through a series of small strokes or suddenly after one large stroke and they may vary; possibly overlapping with Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementia with Lewy bodies occurs when small, abnormal structures known as Lewy bodies, develop inside brain cells, disrupting the brain’s chemistry. Dementia with Lewy bodies is related to Parkinson’s disease, often having similar symptoms such as difficulty with movement.

Frontotemporal dementia, including Pick’s disease, occurs when the front and side parts of the brain are gradually damaged by clumps of abnormal proteins forming inside nerve cells. A sufferer may have difficulties with speech – they often forget the meaning of words.

Dementia diagnosis

The GP will normally make an initial assessment, after which the patient will be referred to a specialist service such as a memory clinic, neurologist, mental health specialist or geriatrician for a detailed assessment.

There is no single dementia test. A diagnosis can be based on:

• The doctor talking to the person, along with someone who knows them well, about how their problems started and how their daily life is affected
• Cognitive tests of thinking and memory
• Blood tests and a physical examination to exclude other possible causes
• A brain scan

Can you prevent dementia?

The majority of dementia cases are incurable, although research continues into drugs and vaccines. There is a range of therapies, support and activities to help people live with it, arranged through the GP, the Alzheimer’s Society and memory service. Some drugs can help to improve the condition or delay the progression of the symptoms.

A healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risks of dementia, particularly in mid-life. Physical exercise such as walking or cycling, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and drinking only in moderation can reduce the risks.

Eat a healthy diet. Try not to consume too much salt, meat or dairy and increase your fish, fruit and vegetable intake. Keep conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and depression under control.

Keep socially and mentally active – visit friends, read or do puzzles. It always worth remembering that healthy lifestyle choices can also reduce the risk of other conditions such as heart disease, strokes and cancer.

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