Providing a comprehensive dementia overview first demands a definition of dementia that explains why it has such a devastating effect on an individual’s ability to function physically and cognitively. Dementia itself is not a disease, but a group of symptoms indicating that a medical condition is damaging brain structures vital to memory and rational thinking.
Depending on the reason for the dementia, structures such as the hippocampus, the ventricles, and neocortex may suffer severe shrinkage and atrophy. Brain cells responsible for transmitting thoughts, ideas, perceptions, and sound patterns to appropriate lobes for processing may be literally suffocated when overtaken by the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.
Is Dementia Curable?
Dementia may be reversible under special circumstances. Some benign tumors that inhibit blood flow to parts of the brain might be safely removed surgically. Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies can induce dementia-like symptoms that are reversible if the patient is given the right kind of nutritional supplements. Dehydration, negative medicinal reactions, endocrine irregularities, and thyroid disease are additional causes of temporary dementia that disappears as soon as the condition is remedied.
A short dementia overview of irreversible dementias such as Alzheimer’s, vascular or multi-infarct dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, frontotemporal dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (dementia caused by alcoholism) finds that at the moment, there is no cure. Eventually, the affected patient becomes so debilitated that he or she must enter a 24-hour nursing facility for around the clock care.
What are the Symptoms Characterizing Alzheimer’s Disease?
A dementia overview of Alzheimer’s-type dementia needs to include a short introduction to “plaques and tangles”, the hallmark feature of an Alzheimer’s brain. The presence of beta-amyloid protein deposits (plaques) and the twisted strands of tangles that are comprised of a protein called tau are responsible for restricting communication among neurons and promoting the death of millions of nerve cells. Researchers are not sure what triggers the emergence of plaques and tangles but suspect that genetics and lifestyle choices play influential roles in the development of AD dementia symptoms.
Everyone experiences lapses in memory as an adult but when memory problems worsen and are accompanied by behavioral and cognitive changes, the probability that AD is affecting the person’s brain is compelling.
Mild to moderate signs of dementia are:
- Repeating the same questions, statements and anecdotes over and over again
- Forgetting important appointments or events
- Putting items in strange places and forgetting about them
- Having regular difficulty remembering commonly used words
- Trouble with following conversations involving more than two people
- Judgment and reasoning may not be as sound as it used to be. Feelings of disorientation and confusion may come and go
- Appearing depressed and anxious due to the growing realization that something is not right. Denial may also begin at this stage, with some AD patients becoming angry and lashing out at those who start to question their mental state
As these symptoms worsen, an AD dementia patient will eventually be unable to remember many other things, such as the day, year or even the names of his or her children. Writing and speaking skills decline, as well as the ability to perform everyday tasks concerning personal hygiene, cooking meals or cleaning the home. Mood swings, paranoia, extreme stubbornness and wandering, especially at night, usually affects people with Alzheimer’s dementia.
According to dementia information culled from research studies, as the plaques and tangles exacerbate the atrophy of the brain, the patient’s circadian rhythm is affected, causing many AD patients to experience severe disruption in sleep patterns. This is due to cell damage within the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain, a structure that regulates sleep/wake cycles in all mammals.
What is Dementia “Multi-Infarct” or Vascular Dementia?
A dementia overview of cognitive impairment symptoms caused by strokes or obstructed blood flow to the brain involves understanding why blood is so important to the brain. Although the brain only weighs about three pounds and is roughly the size of two adult fists placed side by side, it uses nearly 20 percent of the body’s oxygen and blood reserves as well as large amounts of glucose to satisfy the ravenous demands of constantly signaling neurons. Even a small disruption in blood flow to the brain will cause noticeable impairment in thinking clearly or remaining oriented as to time and place.
Vascular dementia is not a normal part of aging. Caused by strokes, atherosclerosis or other conditions that damage vessels and restrict blood flow to the brain, vascular dementia drastically affects memory, rational thinking and behavior. People suffering from vascular dementia eventually experience coma and brain death or may have a series of small strokes that effectively shuts down the brain.
Instead of plaques and tangles, Lewy bodies affect cognition by clogging the cortex with protein alpha-synuclein clumps and causing dementia symptoms that cause vivid hallucinations and Parkinsonian-type muscle spasms and rigidity. A dementia overview concerning patients with Lewy bodies finds that they may not experience the severe memory issues as seen in AD patients, but do exhibit other symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s, such as disorientation and confusion.
Additional different types of dementia such as the frontotemporal dementia seen in Pick’s disease, progressive supranuclear palsy and primary progressive aphasia are not as common as AD and multi-infarct dementia but also cause changes in behavior as well as language difficulties.
This dementia overview also needs to include medical conditions and symptoms that are not indicative of dementia. As stated previously, age-related mental decline is not the same as dementia. We all experience mild cognitive impairment as we age due to a natural decrease in brain volume, specifically gray matter, but not to the level that true dementia patients experience it.
Additionally, being depressed or socially withdrawn is not a sign of dementia either; instead, the losses suffered as a part of growing old are often stressful, causing the elderly to feel unusually despondent and necessitating an intervention of counseling and antidepressant medication.