Dementia in and of itself is not a disease. Instead, it’s a conglomeration of signs and symptoms that occur when the brain has been damaged. Dementia has many causes, but no matter the cause, the effects can be devastating for both the individual and family. By arming ourselves with knowledge of dementia, we can handle the effects much better. After all, it’s not just about the individual’s suffering but that of any caregiver(s) as well. So, becoming familiar with the condition’s signs and symptoms, the possible causes, as well as how to prevent it can help reduce the challenges involved.
Dementia: Signs and Symptoms
Dementia in and of itself is not a disease. Instead, it’s a conglomeration of signs and symptoms that occur when the brain has been damaged. These signs and symptoms must be evaluated and documented by a professional after an extensive examination in order to claim a diagnosis. Signs and symptoms of dementia can be physical or cognitive.
BPSD: Behavioral and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia Vs. Cognitive Symptoms
Behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia are also called neuropsychiatric symptoms. When we go over the signs and symptoms of dementia below, keep in mind that most people generalize these symptoms when in fact, there is a difference. While it’s true that dementia has symptoms of cognitive decline, it also has symptoms reflecting changes in a person’s behavior and psychology, and this is called BPSD. As such, one must know the difference between symptoms of cognitive decline and symptoms related to changes in behavior and psychology. In other words, according to the article by Cloak and Khalili, “a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia might be coded as “major neurocognitive disorder due to Alzheimer’s disease, with behavioral disturbances, severe.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551552/) In short, BPSD symptoms would include symptoms such as behaviors associated with anxiety, wandering, or apathy, while cognitive decline would be seen as memory loss and general confusion.
Finally, the signs and symptoms of dementia may vary from person to person. You’ll notice that we often add “speak to a professional” to our entries. This is because the last thing a person with possible dementia needs is an armchair psychologist. In other words, leave the diagnosing to the professionals, and try to avoid looking for symptoms and diagnosing the individual.
Short-Term Memory Loss
Changes in memory might be an early sign of dementia. These changes include entering a room and forgetting why you’re there, misplacing objects, or forgetting where you live. However, it’s best to speak with a professional about this, as some of what others call ‘changes’ in memory have been with people since they were young. For instance, there are many people who just aren’t good with names, dates, etc. Some creative people are so into what they are creating that they may forget where they left their keys. So speak with a professional about this.
Difficulty in Expressing Emotions
Here, the individual finds it hard to describe how they are feeling at the moment, as they find it difficult to find the words needed to express themselves. Not only do they have trouble finding words when speaking or writing.
Depression and Mood Swings
Depression may be an early sign of dementia. However, again it may also be something you experienced in your adult life, so speak with a professional. Mood swings and alterations in the individual’s everyday personality may also be an early sign of dementia. This can be frustrating not only for the individual suffering from dementia but also for friends and family members as they try to grasp the personality changes.
Disinterest in Life
An early sign of dementia is losing interest in something they previously enjoyed. In fact, they may lose interest in everything from food to engaging with family and friends. In fact, this disinterest can even lead to them choosing to become shut-ins.
Activities of Daily Living
Activities of daily living, or ADL, refer to the activities we do every day. When an individual has dementia, tasks once performed on a regular basis, such as getting dressed, may become impossible for someone with the beginning stages of dementia.
Learning New Things Becomes Difficult
Another sign involves learning new tasks. But be careful here as most of us find it difficult to pay attention to learning things if we’re not interested in it. However, if it happens to be an activity such as playing games that the person always loved, then that’s different. If they have always loved gaming but are beginning to find it hard to learn new games, etc., then speak with a professional.
Confusion may also be an early sign. Here, they may lose their sense of direction or start to repeat the same thing over again and again. They may also forget they just spoke with you and ask about the same thing.
Diagnosis of dementia should only be handled by a physician. In general, your doctor will examine your personal history and speak with you as well as someone close to you. If they deem it necessary, they will administer certain tests. Keep in mind that no one test can be used to diagnose this condition, so be prepared to sit through quite a few.
Here, your doctor will examine your language abilities, memory, vision, attention span, balance, and so on.
Cognitive and Neuropsychological Tests
These tests will measure your ability to think clearly.
Brain scans such as CTs and MRIs will scan you for injuries to your brain, such as evidence of a stroke, tumors, bleeding, and so on. Another scan is the PET scan. PET scans will show your doctor if you have proteins in your brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Lab tests include blood tests and perhaps a spinal tap. Here, your doctor is looking for irregularities such as a vitamin B-12 deficiency.
Dementia can share symptoms with other disorders such as depression. To ensure that one does have dementia and not another disorder, a mental health professional will put you through a battery of tests to test whether it is dementia or depression.
Common Causes of Dementia
The first and foremost cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. According to the CDC, there are approximately 5.8 million Americans dealing with this disease. Though people of any age can get the disease, it is most common in the elderly.
Whenever blood flow to the th4 brain is compromised, the areas deprived of blood may turn into dead tissue. The result can be symptoms of cognitive decline such as forgetfulness and confusion.
One of the many side-effects of alcoholism is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Long-term alcoholics may become deficient in vitamin B1 or Thiamine. When deficient in B1, the brain will no longer be able to transform sugar into energy. This means that the brain will have less energy to function.
Brain tumors can damage the brain in such a way that symptoms of dementia can appear in the individual.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 is necessary In order to properly oxygenate the blood. When there are low levels of B12, the individual suffers from pernicious anemia. Symptoms of pernicious anemia include cognitive impairment such as confusion.
Whenever an individual’s thyroid is compromised, the dysfunction of this gland can lead to dementia.
When an individual suffers head trauma, there may be blood clots. These blood clots may cause the individual to show signs of cognitive decline.
Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease may eventually develop signs and symptoms of dementia due to the process of the disease.
While it’s not as common as Alzheimer’s or other causes, it’s been found that dementia can indeed be inherited. In such cases, the individual is usually under 50 years of age.
Nutrition and Dementia
Research into the link foods have to dementia is extensive; according to a study published in the medical journal Neurology (https://www.eatthis.com/news-these-foods-may-help-prevent-dementia/) individuals who at a diet high in antioxidants, particularly lutein and zeaxanthin staved off cognitive decline better than those who did not. On the other hand, there are other foods that seem to increase the onset of dementia.
Foods that tend to Increase the Probability of Dementia
White foods are classed as any food which is without color, excluding white potatoes and any fresh produce. This includes white bread, pasta, cookies, cakes made with white flour, and white rice.
Processed cheeses and meats have been found to cause a build-up of proteins which are linked to loss of cognitive function. Products such as processed cheeses and meats are the culprits here. Also, microwave popcorn as it contains diacetyl. Diacetyl may lead to an increase of amyloid plaques in the brain.
Foods that Help Lower the Probability of Dementia
Plant-based foods are high in antioxidants and phytonutrients. These play a huge role in obtaining optimum health and helping to delay cognitive decline. Indeed, according to Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, “I am not surprised by the findings, as people who eat more antioxidants are healthier overall…antioxidants help protect the brain from oxidative stress, which may cause damage to the cells and ultimately cognitive decline.” (https://www.eatthis.com/news-these-foods-may-help-prevent-dementia/)
Products made from soybeans contain an antioxidant called polyphenol. Polyphenols have been shown to decrease the risk of dementia as well as give cognitive abilities a boost. Soy products also contain isoflavones such as daidzein and genistein. These antioxidants also assist in delaying cognitive decline and slowing the aging process. The world-famous Okinawa diet is not only high in produce and low in meat but also utilizes soy foods such as tofu, edamame, and natto. (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/okinawa-diet)
Fruits and Vegetables
The more varied your diet when it comes to vegetables, the better. Vegetable produce contains a vast variety of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients; some of the top contenders include:
- Cruciferous vegetables: Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, and turnips
- Green Leafy vegetables: Spinach, kale, collard, and mustard greens
Fruits are packed with a significant amount of age-defying goodness. Fresh or frozen, you can’t beat adding more to your diet. Not only do they hold tons of antioxidants, but they are also loaded with potassium. But remember to keep it varied. Some of the best fruits include
- Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and tart cherries
- Black currants
Delaying Cognitive Decline
Dementia has no cure, and there’s really no way to prevent it. However, we can take steps to decrease its advancement. The good news is that the steps mentioned are easy to do and accessible.
Exercise might not be a cure-all, but it most certainly can improve your odds of remaining alert during your advancing years. For instance, exercise improves blood circulation, which encourages more oxygen to the brain. Exercise also elevates the mood, which helps against depression and anxiety.
Diets Which Put the Emphasis on Fresh Produce
Diets high in fresh produce, such as the Mediterranean or plant-based diets, are loaded with the goodness that fruits and vegetables provide. Produce is packed with antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Such diets have been shown to have a positive effect on slowing cognitive decline:
“High antioxidants and phytochemicals from plant foods may protect against cognitive decline, while saturated fats from animal-based foods considered as risk factors have been associated with dementia. Plant-based diets with limited animal products have been shown to improve glycemic control and reduce diabetes risk.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6846186/)
When your body sleeps, your body enters recovery and heals itself. As such, getting a good night’s sleep can help stave off cognitive decline. Sleep has been shown to improve cognitive function.
Video Games and the Prevention of Cognitive Decline
Today, more and more seniors are playing video games. Such mental activity has shown to have a positive effect on the brain, meaning it’s been shown to slow down cognitive decline, as this video shows (https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/video-games/older-people-are-embracing-video-games-some-stardom-n1047906). Gaming online also keeps seniors company by providing them with social interaction. In fact, any type of mental stimulation can help delay the effects of dementia, even doing a simple crossword puzzle. However, playing video games provides not only mental stimulation for seniors but also a social outlet.
Conditions Linked to Dementia
Diseases Linked to Dementia
As we’ve already learned, dementia can have a variety of causes, such as brain trauma, nutritional deficiency, or tumors, just to name a few. There are also diseases that may lead to dementia.
A person with Huntington’s disease may initially seem to have Alzheimer’s, but such is not the case. Huntington’s is a disease that is inherited and occurs in mid-adulthood. Motor functions will be affected, as will cognitive functions. As individual ages, their cognitive functions may decline, leading to dementia.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
NPH generally occurs in individuals 60 years and beyond. Here, the brain experiences an excess of fluid build-up. The result of this excess fluid is the symptoms of dementia. Both cognitive and motor skills suffer.
As their illness progresses, those with Parkinson’s may develop difficulty with memory loss and logical thinking. Finishing once simple tasks will also become difficult. They can also hallucinate or have sudden mood swings. Researchers have sited “Lewy Bodies” as the cause of their dementia.
Posterior Cortical Atrophy
PCA refers to the degeneration of outer brain tissue. In general, those affected are over 50. In the early stages, PCA is thought to be Alzheimer’s. Cognitive decline, as well as vision, may occur.
Proteins called prions are the culprit here. These proteins enter the brain and hitch a ride on functioning brain cells, causing them to become impaired. When this occurs, the individual exhibits signs of dementia.
When a person suffers a brain injury, dementia may be the result. The type of signs and symptoms exhibited will depend on the area of the brain which has been affected.
Leukodystrophy affects children. This is a genetic disease involving the myelin sheath, which covers nerve cells in the brain. As the disease progresses, the child will show a marked decline in both cognitive and motor skills.
Advice for Caregivers
If you’re a family member caring for someone with dementia, know that your journey may be fraught with obstacles. In such cases, it’s only natural to feel tired, frustrated, and alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if necessary. Until then, there are things to do to help you out. For instance, remember not to take their behavior personally. A person with dementia has no filter and no control. If they strike out at you or forget who you are, just take it as part of their illness, not an insult aimed at you. Other things to do would be to provide activities for them, help them with activities of daily living, and above all, be patient and understanding. Resources for caregivers include:
- National Alliance of Caregivers (https://www.caregiving.org/resources/)
- Caregiver Resources (https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-resources/)
- HHS.gov (https://www.hhs.gov/programs/providers-and-facilities/resources-for-caregivers/index.html)
- Centers for Disease Control Caregiving Resources (https://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/resources.htm)
- Caregiver Support (https://www.usa.gov/disability-caregiver)
As you can see, dementia is quite complex. It can be the result of certain illnesses, vitamin deficiencies, brain injury, toxins, or simply eating the wrong foods that end up promoting vascular degeneration. However, when it hits, it hits hard. Both the individual and their loved ones will suffer much. This is why it’s so important for family and friends to understand dementia and learn to act with patience and love. Caregivers will need to take a break once in a while, and some may need to seek help. Dealing with dementia is difficult, but now that there are resources available to assist you.