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What is Dementia?

Dementia is not a disease but rather, a syndrome characterized by a cluster of symptoms that include memory loss, impaired thinking, and changes in behavior that eventually interfere with daily life. Although dementia itself is not a disease, it can be caused by diseases (Alzheimer’s disease being one of the more well-known of them).

Some dementia statistics
Dementia is most widespread among the elderly population, although it can also affect young people because not all dementia is age-related. However, it does show up largely in the older population and the incidence is growing.

  • Dementia affects five to six percent of the world’s population aged 60 and above.
  • Almost 10 million new cases are diagnosed each year.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 47 million people globally have dementia of some kind today.
  • The WHO projects that the number will rise to almost 75 million in 2030 and to a staggering 132 million people by 2050.

Warning signs of dementia
At first, there are mild changes such as some memory loss, confusion or getting lost in familiar places, trouble learning or trouble speaking (getting the words out); some people may exhibit personality changes such as increased irritability or suspicion. A complete medical examination and neurological tests are in order if you suspect a loved one is showing signs of dementia. If indeed that is the diagnosis, you will see a worsening of symptoms over time. Some medications exist that help slow down the symptoms for many people, but there is no cure.

Different kinds of dementia
There are many types of dementia. Some are caused by underlying disease, others by physical or systemic conditions.

Vascular dementia stems from blocked or damaged blood vessels, which leads to a stroke or bleeding in the brain. Vascular dementia accounts for about 10 percent of dementia cases. Symptoms include impaired decision-making, judgment, and organizational ability.

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) results from abnormal proteins, called Lewy bodies, which develop in the brain’s frontal cortex. Symptoms may include sleep problems, hallucinations, and imbalanced gait; DLB patients also experience memory loss and confusion.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia (60-80 percent of all dementia cases stem from Alzheimer’s disease). It is caused by protein deposits and nerve cell damage in the brain. Patients have progressive difficulty with cognitive and physical abilities: memory, confusion, communication, judgment, behavior, walking, and swallowing. The disease may be present before symptoms emerge.

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) usually occurs earlier in life, around age 60, and causes changes in behavior and personality, and can cause language problems. People with FTD have a shorter life expectancy than those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Mixed dementia occurs when the patient experiences more than one form of dementia.

Diseases and conditions that may lead to dementia
Dementia is not a disease but is often caused by underlying or concomitant diseases. These include:

  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Prions, which are proteins that occur normally in the neurons of the central nervous system, are misfolded in the brain. Changes in memory, coordination, and behavior are early symptoms of CJD and progress quickly to dementia, blindness, weakness and coma. CJD progresses rapidly and is always fatal.
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus. A buildup of fluid in the brain leads to loss of memory, mobility, and continence.
  • Advanced Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s occurs when the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine (neurotransmitters that affect the brain’s pain and pleasure centers, among other functions) are compromised. The effects look similar to those of Alzheimer’s and DLB.
  • Huntington’s disease. This genetic disorder causes protein abnormalities in the brain. Patients display involuntary movements, declining cognitive abilities, and mood changes.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This condition is due to a severe vitamin B-1 deficiency, which affects the brain’s ability to produce energy from sugar. Alcohol abuse is a leading factor and the primary symptom is extreme memory problems.

Caring for dementia patients
The rising numbers of older adults with a dementia-related diagnosis means an increased need for quality, compassionate care. There are a growing number of options within assisted living communities across the country. In northern New Jersey, there’s the Memory Care Suite at the Lester Senior Housing Community. This intimate, supportive environment provides a very special kind of dementia care according to the nationally recognized Comfort Matters® philosophy. This stresses individualized, “person-centered” care with a focus on always keeping respect and dignity for each resident at the forefront.

To learn more, contact David Rozen at (973) 929-2725 or davidr@richardc95.sg-host.com.