Dementia is not one specific disease, but is a term used to describe a variety of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain. These disorders are characterized by impaired memory and difficulty with language, motor activity, recognizing objects and “executive function,” which refers to the ability to plan and organize.
It’s important to recognize that although dementia is usually accompanied by memory loss, not all memory loss is a sign of dementia. Your Wellstar neurologist will help you understand the distinction and take steps to determine if the symptoms indicate dementia.
Dementia is typically an illness that affects older adults, but it is not a normal part of aging.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease. Another common type is vascular dementia, which is a result of brain damage from strokes and other causes. Other types include Lewy body dementia, Huntington’s disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Conditions that can cause dementia and dementia-like symptoms include medications, metabolic abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, infections, poisoning, brain tumors, heart and lung problems and conditions that cause reduced oxygen supply to the brain.
Symptoms of dementia can vary a great deal. At least two core mental functions must show significant impairment to be considered dementia. These are:
- Communication and language
- Ability to focus and pay attention
- Reasoning and judgment
- Visual perception
Age and genetics are risk factors for developing dementia. While these cannot be changed, other controllable risk factors may play a role. Researchers continue to study the impact of cardiovascular factors, fitness and nutrition.
While links have not been definitively proven, Wellstar neurologists agree that taking certain steps to protect the brain and increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain may reduce the risk of developing dementia.
There is no “magic bullet” for preventing dementia. But following healthy habits may help prevent damage to brain cells that cause dementia. These habits include:
- Quit smoking or don’t start
- Keep blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar within recommended limits
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Get regular physical exercise to increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain
- Eat a healthy diet that’s low in red meat and rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and nuts
Your Wellstar neurologist will help diagnose or rule out dementia by conducting a thorough medical history and a physical examination to learn about a patient’s diet, alcohol, medications, behavior, function and thinking. Identifying the specific type of dementia can be challenging because symptoms and brain changes of various dementias can overlap. Also, many other conditions can cause confused thinking and memory problems. Examples include anemia, depression, diabetes and heart disease.
Tools and Tests
A variety of tests are used to help make an accurate diagnosis of dementia. Among these:
- Lab tests of urine and blood to determine if symptoms may be from other causes
- A neurological exam to test reflexes, coordination, muscle strength, eye movement, speech and sensation
- Mental status test to evaluate memory and problem-solving abilities
- Possible brain imaging
Treating dementia depends on the cause. There is no cure and no treatment to slow or stop progressive dementias including Alzheimer’s Disease. However some medications and non-drug therapies can temporarily improve symptoms.
Researchers are working on developing new treatments for dementia. Ask your Wellstar neurologist about the possibility of clinical trials that let patients participate in the current research and take advantage of emerging drugs and treatments.
Ongoing Care for Dementia
Palliative care and hospice. Wellstar’s certified palliative care physicians and certified registered nurses are dedicated to providing compassionate, quality care in various settings, including home hospice, inpatient hospice nursing homes, assisted living facilities and nursing homes.