According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, there were an estimated 50 million people with dementia worldwide in 2019, but, by 2050, that number is expected to increase dramatically to 135 million people. In 2018, the United States spent approximately $280 billion to care for people with dementia, which Michael S. Rafii, MD, Ph.D., director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at the University of California, San Diego, says is “greater than the cost of any other disease faced by our society.”
All of this to say, dementia, and, by extension, Alzheimer’s disease, impacts so many folks — not just those with the disease, but their families and caretakers as well. The best way to prepare? Understand the early signs of dementia and how to support patients suffering from it.
Causes of Dementia
Dementia is the collective name for progressive and degenerative brain syndromes that affect memory, thinking, behavior, language, and emotions. However, it adds up to more than bouts of forgetfulness or repeatedly losing one’s car keys. That is, dementia interferes with a person’s daily life and functions.
At least half of all dementia cases are brought on by Alzheimer’s disease, and, while the leading risk factor for dementia is age, the disease has many causes. For some, the blood vessels in one’s brain may play a role, while, for others, it stems from toxins or genetics.
Warning Signs & Early Symptoms Associated With Dementia
It’s extremely important to know what symptoms to look out for. Early dementia symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Repeating the same story or question over and over
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Delusions or aggression
- Problems with language or recognizing objects
- Memory or concentration problems
- Difficulty following directions
- Getting disoriented about time, people, or places
- Neglecting personal safety, hygiene, and/or nutrition
Types of Dementia
Dementia can be divided into two broad categories: cortical dementias and subcortical dementias. Cases of cortical dementias affect the outer layer of one’s brain and are often characterized by memory loss and the inability to recall words. On the other hand, subcortical dementias affect the parts of the brain beneath the cortex and can cause slowing of thought as well as a reduced ability to think clearly or initiate activities.
The most common causes of dementia include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Degenerative Neurological Diseases: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and some types of multiple sclerosis.
- Vascular Disorders: Blood flow problems that cause strokes or arteriosclerosis in the brain.
- Mixed Dementias: A combination of a vascular disorder and Alzheimer’s, for instance.
Next Steps for Patients & Their Families or Caregivers
Depending on the cause of dementia, some cases may be treatable. For example, dehydration, depression, and B12 deficiency are all causes of dementia symptoms that can be rectified. Unfortunately, most forms of dementia are not preventable and will worsen over time. However, researchers are working to develop drugs to combat this growing issue and slow the degenerative process.
Eager to try something? Consider joining a clinical trial. Research shows that Alzheimer’s patients have beta-amyloid deposits in their brains, even before symptoms like memory loss begin. These sticky, protein-rich deposits are associated with brain atrophy and cognitive decline. Clinical trials aimed at preventing the growth of these deposits are underway, and many new ones are expected to start.
Aside from lending support and watching for warning signs of dementia, family members, friends, and caregivers can help patients in other ways. Try to encourage the following:
- Healthy Lifestyle Choices: Make healthy lifestyle choices as a family, like exercising and eating better, in order to combat the onslaught of dementia.
- Mental Exercise: Keep your brain active with reading; perform regular exercise that keeps blood flowing to the brain; and avoid smoking.
- Independence: Experts recommend people with dementia stay independent for as long as possible.
- “Changes in the Quality of Life of People with Dementia Living in Care Homes” via Europe PMC Funders Group, U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Shared decision-making for people living with dementia in extended care settings: a systematic review” via BMJ Open, U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Entangled in uncertainty: The experience of living with dementia from the perspective of family caregivers” via Plos One, U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Advancing Research on Care Needs and Supportive Approaches for Persons With Dementia: Recommendations and Rationale” via HHS Public Access, U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “The Disproportionate Impact Of Dementia On Family And Unpaid Caregiving To Older Adults” via HHS Public Access, U.S. National Library of Medicine