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What is Dementia?

A couple walking and discussing what is dementia.

What is dementia, exactly? While you are probably familiar with the symptoms, the actual term might be a little different than you think. The word “dementia” doesn’t refer to a specific condition. Instead, it can be used to talk about memory impairment, loss of language, or the decline in being able to do everyday activities. There are actually several different kinds of dementia that affect people in a variety of ways, depending on the root cause.

Conditions that cause changes in the brain are all grouped together as dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The symptoms of dementia cause a person’s cognitive abilities to decline over time, making it harder to remember things or make decisions. This gradual loss can make it harder for an older adult to live an independent life. If you know someone with dementia, you may notice changes in their personality and behavior, too. These changes can affect the way they feel about those around them, including the quality of their relationships.

Dementia is not the norm when it comes to healthy aging. It’s estimated that 55 million adults in the world have dementia, though 60% of them live in low or middle-income countries. Some slight memory loss does come with age, however. Here’s what you need to know about dementia, including signs and symptoms, the different types, and treatment options.

Signs and Symptoms of Dementia

Dementia itself is not a disease but is actually a collection of symptoms. This means that symptoms can manifest differently in each individual depending on their diagnosis. Even so, it’s good to know what to look out for if you think an aging loved one in your life could possibly be experiencing cognitive decline. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of dementia include: 

  • Problems with memory, concentration, or paying attention
  • Mood changes
  • Difficulty following a conversation or being able to use speech correctly
  • Confusion around time and place
  • Loss of being able to do tasks independently
  • Forgetting words or even names of familiar people
  • Forgetfulness

These are the most basic symptoms to look out for. Diseases that present with dementia symptoms, like Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia, will have further symptoms to look out for that are specific to the cause.

If you suspect that you might have some symptoms of dementia, make an appointment with your primary care physician. There are several tests that your healthcare provider can run that check things like cognitive function, memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. In addition to these tests, your doctor will give you a physical exam and order bloodwork. They may also ask for brain imaging, like a CT scan or MRI, to help pinpoint the cause of the dementia symptoms.

Types of Dementia

Dementia was rarer before the 20th century but is more prevalent now since adults are living longer than previous generations. Since then, more than 100 different causes of dementia have been identified. Even though dementia is more common in aging adults, people in their 40s and 50s can experience younger onset dementia. While numbers like this may sound scary, it’s important to remember that dementia is not a part of normal aging.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has dementia, getting a diagnosis is important. This can help to find the cause of the symptoms and determine which type of dementia you have. Knowing the type can help with dementia care and managing symptoms in daily life. The most common types of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease: the most common cause of dementia.
  • Vascular dementia: caused by damage to the blood vessels that carry blood to the brain.
  • Frontotemporal dementia: caused by the breaking down of nerve cells and their connections to the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain.
  • Lewy body dementia: a common type of dementia where Lewy bodies, or clumps of protein, are present in the brain.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, meaning that symptoms will become more noticeable over time. It affects parts of the brain that perform important functions, such as using thought, memory, and language. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia symptoms, with more than 5.8 million Americans having a diagnosis back in 2020.

As of now, scientists haven’t figured out what causes Alzheimer’s but they think that there are several factors involved. However, researchers are still looking into factors like education, diet, physical activity, and lifestyle play into who develops Alzheimer’s.

Stages of Dementia

Dementia is progressive and develops over three stages: early, middle, and late. These same stages can also be referred to as mild, moderate, or severe dementia because of how the symptoms increase. This means that symptoms start out slowly but will become more noticeable over time. Since dementia affects people differently, there isn’t an exact timeline as to how long these stages will last for an individual.

The early stage can last anywhere from a few months to a few years. This is when people first start to notice symptoms that affect their daily lives, like memory recall, following conversations, or becoming lost or confused in a familiar place. While the symptoms are mild, family members or loved ones may start to notice some changes in behavior or personality.

Over time, early-stage symptoms will become more distinctive. This is the beginning of middle-stage dementia. In addition to worsening early symptoms, people in this stage often start to feel anxious, restless, or have difficulty sleeping. These feelings may become more intense later in the day, around sunset. False beliefs, perceptions, or delusions may cause someone at this stage to be fearful of others, feel like others are out to get them, or see or hear things that aren’t really there.

Eventually, symptoms will worsen until the individual reaches late-stage dementia. At this point, most people are unable to live independently and will need a dementia care plan, like living in a memory care community or live-in care at home. Family and friends will notice that someone in the late stage will have a severe loss of communication, recognition, and disorientation. It’s not uncommon for them to forget time and place, even believing that they are in a younger time of their life with a desire to return to their childhood home, which can actually be symbolic. A childhood home represents safety, warmth, and familiarity, all of which bring a great deal of comfort.

Late-stage dementia also comes with some physical changes. Infections, incontinence, and reduced mobility are all common. People may also have difficulty eating, drinking, and swallowing at this stage. Dementia can eventually lead to death but it is more likely that a comorbidity may act first.

Treatment for Dementia

Research is still ongoing to find a cure for dementia. At the moment, there are several treatment options available to help. Medication can help improve symptoms, depending on the type of dementia. Cholinesterase inhibitors can increase levels of the chemical messenger in the brain that’s responsible for memory and judgment. Memantine may also be prescribed with it or independently, as it also helps boost chemical messengers that help with learning and memory function. This means that these medications help the brain speak to itself easier for about a year longer compared to not taking it.

In most cases, dementia treatment involves palliative care. This kind of cure isn’t to cure the condition, but just to make the person living with it as comfortable as possible. Palliative care for dementia includes strategies to improve the person’s quality of life so that they can continue to live independently for as long as possible. These techniques also include all aspects of health, to care for the mind, body, and spirit. Care plans are tailored to individuals and may include medication and counseling.

Medicine can be used to treat other aspects of dementia, especially when it comes to mood and behavior changes. While the preferred method when dealing with these symptoms is to learn coping strategies, it may not work with everyone.

Counseling or support groups can be a great resource for people going through the early stage of dementia. It’s normal to feel scared, anxious, and angry, so having someone to talk to and listen is very valuable.

Memory Care Communities

Even with palliative care, people with dementia may reach a point where they can no longer live at home. This can be because living independently is no longer an option due to dementia symptoms, or because family and friends are not equipped to prepare the level of care that they need. Memory care communities can offer a high level of daily care that is customized for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

These communities employ professionals who create supportive teams that are adapted to the needs of people living with dementia. They provide a lot of the same care that a regular assisted living community would provide, such as different living arrangements, healthy meals, stimulating activities and recreational programs, and assistance with personal care. Residents also have help with things like housekeeping and laundry services.

The vast majority of memory care communities offer specialized activities for people with dementia to help with the various stages of the disease. These activities are aimed at helping residents learn to cope with them. Additionally, memory care communities are typically equipped with safety features, like locked doors and enclosed courtyards. This is to ensure that residents stay safe and their loved ones have peace of mind.

One very important feature of these communities is that the staff is trained to work with people going through symptoms of dementia. This includes being able to soothe and comfort residents when they feel confusion, anxiety, or irritability. Most other types of senior living communities don’t require this training, but those working at a memory care center are required to have it.

Long-Term Care Planning

Receiving a dementia diagnosis is a lot to deal with, so it may seem difficult to plan for more than one day at a time. As you or your loved one start to adjust to the news, you can start thinking about a long-term care plan. Planning early can help make things run easier and more comfortably in the future as dementia symptoms become more pronounced.

One thing to think about is personal lifestyle preference. Does the affected individual want to receive care at home? Or would they prefer to be in a social environment surrounded by others going through the same thing? Asking these questions can help you and your family come up with a plan that’s best suited to both needs and preferences.

Staying at home can bring comfort and familiarity. However, as dementia progresses, it may become too difficult for family members to manage care at home without the help of a professional. Hiring live-in care can be an option, especially in the early or middle stages of dementia.

Many people opt for live-in settings, like memory care communities, assisted living, or nursing homes. This ensures that the individual receives quality care no matter which stage they’re going through. These long-term settings ensure care around the clock from trained professionals. Besides specialized care, people in these communities often receive routine medical care, balanced nutrition, organized activities, and activities that help to engage in healthy aging.

When long-term planning, it’s a good idea to visit a number of settings and communities. This will give you a better idea of what they’re like and help you make an informed decision. Visiting with family and friends can help both you and your community make choices together that are best for everyone moving forward.

Memory Care Communities by Senior Resource Group

Choosing a long-term care community is a huge decision. While there’s a lot to think about, one thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t just a place to manage your dementia symptoms, it’s your new home. SRG knows this, so our luxury senior living communities are equipped with everything our residents need to live happy, fulfilling lives in a stimulating atmosphere.

Reach out to SRG to learn more about our memory care communities and discover how our residents engage in healthy aging each day. Here, our seniors engage in daily activities that address the needs of the mind, body, and soul. Start your long-term planning now with a visit to SRG, and discover the difference in our care.