Dementia is often a misunderstood term. It’s not a diagnosis, but rather a spectrum of symptoms and behaviors that can lead to a precise diagnosis. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, but there are also several other types with distinct causes, symptoms and care recommendations.
At the core of dementia is a diminishing capacity to think, remember and reason – these are the foundations for the behavioral abilities that make us unique and allow us to perceive the world, interact socially, solve problems and manage daily responsibilities. By gradually diminishing these abilities, dementia erodes your identity, leading to confusion and restricted independence.
By looking deeper into dementia, we can learn more about it, understand some of the different conditions that qualify as dementia and explore health strategies to help prevent the onset and development of dementia.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a condition of cognitive decline that presents itself different, according to the precise diagnosis, and progresses at different rates. More specific conditions that fall within the overall dementia definition, listed in order of general commonality, include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Vascular dementia
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
- Parkinson’s disease
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)
- Huntington’s disease
At the core each of these conditions is the occurrence of healthy neurons losing function, becoming disconnected from surrounding neurons and ultimately dying. Gradual atrophy (cell death) of neurons is a normal part of aging, however loss from dementia is more rapid and to a far greater extent.
Recognizing the stages of Dementia
Dementia in all its forms follows a steady progression from healthy cognitive function, through various stages of decline. There are several different means of tracking dementia, most agree on the following progression of stages:
Stage 1: No impairment. No symptoms are apparent and mental function is normal.
Stage 2: Very mild cognitive decline. This stage is typified by common age-related decline (i.e. forgetting certain dates, requiring a prompt to remember names, forgetting where common items have been left). Ability to perform self-care and everyday activities are not affected.
Stage 3: Mild cognitive decline. At this stage, friends and family may start to notice a difference. Frustrating instances of memory loss become more pronounced, verbal repetition occurs more frequently and diminished organization abilities may impact complex tasks and problem solving. Driving may become more difficult, which can begin to affect daily activities.
Stage 4: Moderate cognitive decline. Diagnosis of the precise nature of the impairment often occurs at this stage, as independent living becomes a greater challenge. Moodiness and social withdrawal are common, along with occasions of non-responsive behavior. Denial of the problem can frustrate family and friends.
Stage 5: Moderately severe cognitive decline. Episodes of confusion and forgetfulness combine with memory loss regarding personal details, creating the need for more intensive care. Routine tasks, including dressing and hygiene, require supervision and/or intervention.
Stage 6: Severe cognitive decline. Escalating decline makes eating and using the bathroom a challenge; this is the stage when many families realise a need for specialized living arrangements for their loved one. Secondary symptoms include difficulty sleeping and increased paranoia or delusions, along with trouble recognising loved ones.
Stage 7: Very severe cognitive decline. Late stage dementia is characterized by severe motor and communication impairment, emotional withdrawal and complete inability for self-care. Physical deterioration can follow quickly.
The transitions from one stage to the next are not always obvious; those impacted by dementia can have good days and bad days, and the progression is notoriously variable. The key to recognising dementia is to understand the difference between simple forgetfulness or typical age-related challenges, and cognitive decline that has a distinct impact on happiness, capabilities and lifestyle.
Optimizing your health to help prevent dementia
There remain many factors about dementia we do not yet understand and there are no foolproof ways to prevent dementia. However, there does appear to be a link between practicing common health and anti-aging strategies as a means of minimising the risk associated with dementia.
High cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and obesity are all preventable conditions and associated with an increased risk of dementia. At the most basic level, medical science agrees that what is good for your heart is also good for your brain. This includes:
- Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet
- Staying within a healthy weight range
- Regular exercise
- Minimal alcohol intake
- No smoking
- Maintaining healthy blood pressure
In addition to the above, a carefully tailored supplement regime may also assist with your brain health and memory function, one that also addresses other conditions known to increase the risk of developing the disease,
Understand dementia to fight against it
Dementia is one of the most debilitating and disheartening conditions many will face. By understanding what it is, the causes and symptoms, it helps us better understand how to reduce our risk of developing the condition as well as how to fight back against it.