Dementia is the general label for a group of symptoms caused by various conditions or illnesses that results in serious, often irreversible mental decline which affects a person’s ability to function in everyday life. It typically afflicts people over the age of 60 and the risk of dementia increases as a person ages.
Over time, dementia gets progressively worse and can impact your loved one’s memory, language, judgment, behavior and reasoning/thinking abilities. When caused by severe brain injury or disease, dementia is irreversible. However, when caused by vitamin deficiencies, minor brain injuries, tumors, normal pressure hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain), dehydration, hormone imbalances, alcohol, drugs or certain medications and caught in time, it may indeed be reversible.
The two main types of dementia are cortical and subcortical. Cortical dementia occurs when the outer layer of the brain, called the cerebral cortex, becomes damaged and the cells begin to wither away. This part of the brain is vital to mental processes including memory and language. If your loved one is experiencing this type of dementia, they will likely experience communication issues and memory loss. The second type is subcortical dementia which occurs when the inner part of the brain becomes damaged. Memory and language may not be affected, however, thinking, personality, attention span and behavior can be.
The most common forms of dementia are referred to as Alzheimer’s Disease and vascular dementia. Vascular dementia can differ in its symptoms and causes, but it generally occurs as a result of damage to the brain caused by a stroke or several small strokes. Specific medical conditions can also contribute to general dementia, including multiple sclerosis (MS), frontotemporal lobar degenerations (FTLD), Lyme disease, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Dementia can make it harder and harder to perform daily living activities such as eating, bathing and dressing and as it progresses your loved one may need constant supervision. The following symptoms are typical of dementia, although not everyone experiencing them has dementia:
Moodiness - Everyone gets moody at times but when parts of the brain that control emotion become damaged, your loved one may become progressively moodier and begin to exhibit drastic mood swings. In addition, your loved one may be frightened and their mood may worsen as a result of fear and anxiety about what is happening to them. These changes can also cause feelings of isolation, despair, loss and lowered self-esteem which can lead to depression.
Memory loss – Although everyone can forget things on occasion, we usually remember them at a later time. With dementia, this information is often lost for good as the neurons in the brain that control memory are lost. In the early stages, your loved one may forget information they previously knew. For example, they may forget how to get home from the grocery store, what year it is, or the name of the city in which they live. They may also have difficulty performing familiar tasks or even remembering that they once knew how to do it. You loved one may also misplace things in odd ways like putting the phone in the cabinet and then forgetting where it went. Unfortunately, as dementia progresses, it can lead to your loved one not being able to recognize you or other family members.
Communication difficulties – As the cells in the brain decay, the language centers of the brain are also affected. One may find it difficult to talk, read or even write. It can often be frustrating when you cannot tell what someone wants or you cannot successfully communicate with them when they completely forget words or have trouble with understanding simple ones. Remember, as frustrating as it can be for you, it is just as frustrating to your loved one. Keep in mind that when dementia is severe, your loved one may completely lose the ability to understand language all together.
Behavioral issues – When more parts of the brain decay, brain centers that regulate behavior are affected. Your loved one may develop the inability to control their actions and experience severe personality changes. A normally likeable person could become angry and depressed. A person who is normally very careful may begin acting erratic and impulsive, or a once social person may become passive and refuse to leave the house.
Slowed reasoning and thinking abilities – You may notice that your loved one appears to have a hard time thinking and/or their attention span decreases. They may also have difficulty with language skills and may have forgotten how to use numbers or remember what they actually represent. You may also begin to notice that that they may exercise poor judgment, even losing the ability to recognize danger.
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