Dementia is a chronic and progressive deterioration of mental capacity, and you have probably heard of Alzheimer’s disease, its most common form. In Canada, about 15 per cent of people 65-plus years old are affected, and with the growth of this age group, the numbers of people affected are sure to increase.
Dementia is not just ordinary forgetfulness. For example, any of us might forget where we left our gloves, but with dementia you forget how to put your gloves on, or even that you should wear them when it’s cold outside. It is a progressive disease that occurs gradually, and mental capacity is irreversibly diminished. By the time a dementia diagnosis is made, the disease has had decades to develop.
A disease that tends to affect older people, dementia can be the result of genetic factors, environment, or even diet. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease does indeed have a family tendency, and genetic testing is possible. More women are affected than men, but that may be because women tend to live longer.
The symptoms of dementia can include memory loss, difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with language, disorientation to time and place, poor or diminished judgment, problems with abstract thinking, mood or behaviour changes, personality changes, and loss of initiative.
While dementia symptoms are devastating, sometimes an underlying condition or medication may be the cause for the symptoms. And, the good news is that some of these underlying causes can be treated.
Trauma such as a head injury or a tumour can produce symptoms. Treatment and even surgery in the case of a tumour may be helpful. Vascular dementia can occur secondary to circulation diseases such as strokes, and treatment can be useful. Infections such as HIV or even something as common as a urinary tract infection can cause symptoms, and treatment with anti-infective agents may alleviate them. Severe vitamin B12 deficiency is manifested by dementia, and correction of the deficiency may help. And sometimes the symptoms may be linked to poor vision or hearing, which eyeglasses or hearing aids may resolve.
Any medication that affects cognitive functioning can result in confusion, memory loss, and psychological changes, all of which may be mistaken for dementia. The most commonly implicated drugs include benzodiazepines used for insomnia and anxiety, narcotic pain relievers, and tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline. Elderly people who are more commonly associated with dementia are also more often affected by these adverse effects. Older individuals are more likely to have multiple medical conditions and to take multiple types of medications, meaning they are more at risk. Then, by the very nature of their age, their bodies don’t work as well as they once did, meaning that drugs can accumulate with more profound effects. A “drug holiday” may identify the dementia as medication induced.
You may not notice dementia symptoms, passing them off as “normal aging,” and if the symptoms are noticed they may not be investigated because of the fear of being admitted to a nursing home. However, if you, a family member, or friend is experiencing forgetfulness, it is a good idea to have the symptom checked, as it may be something easily remedied. In the meantime, make sure you are doing everything that you can to keep your brain healthy.
Uncontrolled blood pressure, high cholesterol, and poorly controlled diabetes can contribute to dementia. Always wear protective head gear to prevent head trauma. Drug and alcohol abuse can damage nerve cells increasing susceptibility, and there is some evidence that smoking can be a contributing factor in some people. Much like exercise to keep your muscles in shape, use your brain in new challenging activities. Obviously, you know what you should be doing, don’t wait, start now!