Watching a loved one suffer from dementia or personally experiencing symptoms can be a frustrating, frightening journey. Used as a general term to describe deteriorating mental capabilities, dementia can chip away a person’s independence and sound mind.
Dr. Raj S. Grewal, who practices internal medicine with St. John Health System in Tulsa, defines dementia as a disease with a progressive decline of intellectual function.
“There is loss of shorter memory and at least one other cognitive deficit,” Grewal says. “This decline has to be severe enough to interfere with social life and work. Common symptoms may include shortened memory loss and difficulty finding words, getting lost in familiar places, difficulty recognizing familiar faces or difficulty with planning or judgments.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of all cases and afflicting more than 5 million Americans. In addition, one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Other common forms include vascular dementia and Lewy body dementia (LBD). Vascular dementia develops when damage to blood vessels reduces circulation and deprives the brain of vital oxygen and nutrients. This can be from a stroke or other medical trauma. Lewy body dementia is known by the presence of Lewy bodies, abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein, in the brain. The Lewy Body Dementia Association estimates that 1.4 million individuals and their families in the United States are affected by LBD. However, because LBD symptoms are similar to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, it is often underdiagnosed.
Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and LBD are irreversible conditions. A patient’s life expectancy after diagnosis can range from as little as two years to as long as 20 years, depending on the type and severity of the disease.
However, it’s important to note that there are some causes of dementia that are reversible.
“Dementia with decline starting earlier than age 60, with rapid progression systemic symptoms, including weight loss, may be from some other illnesses,” Grewal says. “This may include infections, neoplasms, thyroid conditions or even normal pressure hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus can cause gait instability and urinary incontinence, along with dementia.”
Grewal adds that chronic sleep deprivation and depression may increase the risk of dementia and many medications may cause delirium and cognitive impairment in senior citizens.
“These medications may include sleeping medicine, opioids, antihistamines and steroids,” he says. “Other risk factors include family history, vascular disease, stroke, diabetes and head injury.”
Grewal also explains that minor memory loss and cognitive impairments in older people may be signs of decline but not necessarily a case of dementia. He says hearing loss or vision impairment can contribute to symptoms at times. However, if symptoms persist, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor for a medical exam that may include blood work and, if necessary, an MRI or CT scan.