Dementia has become one of the biggest diseases of old age in America. The number of people living and dying with dementia has been on the rise over the past decade and it’s estimated that five million older adults are currently living with Alzheimer’s, the most common form. In spite of the widespread presence of this illness, new research recently released has found that many people don’t really understand what dementia is, what causes it, and how it can be prevented. This lack of understanding means many are missing out on prevention and early treatment opportunities.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of diseases that all affect the workings of the brain. While Alzheimer’s is the best known, there are several different types with different causes and symptoms. They often lead to memory loss, personality changes, thinking and problem-solving difficulties, and loss of social skills. While these symptoms might start out slight, they often worsen to the point of interfering with a person’s life and everyday function. The specific symptoms of dementia and how it progresses vary with the type of dementia. In spite of the differences underlying brain damage unifies all dementias. That damage breaks up essential connections between nerve cells and prevents thinking from occurring the way it normally should.
How did these researchers find out what people know?
The research team wanted to get a sense of what people knew about dementia from all over the world. To do that, they gathered data from smaller articles that had researched the general knowledge people have about dementia from all over the world. In total, they looked at 40 studies with around a quarter of them done in the U.S. and a significant number coming from the UK, Australia and France. The research team pooled all of this data and used it to look at what people actually seem to know about dementia.
What did the researchers find?
The data showed that many people have very limited knowledge about what dementia is, what causes it and what you can do to treat or prevent it. Many people didn’t understand that there were risk factors for dementia and many thought the early signs and symptoms were just a part of normal aging. Many didn’t know that there were different kinds of dementia. The team found that older individuals tended to be less knowledgeable and women tended to know more than men.
What really causes dementia?
In the case of Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia, research is still underway to figure out what leads to the disease. Scientists know that the buildup of certain proteins seems to lead to the disease, but why they build up is unknown. The second most common cause of dementia is called vascular dementia. This occurs when a person at risk for stroke who has high blood pressure or diabetes for example, has a number of small strokes that damage their brain. While each stroke isn’t deadly by itself, the accumulation of damage over the course of several strokes leads to a type of dementia. After Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia come Lewy Body dementia and frontotemporal dementia. Like Alzheimer’s, the cause of these two dementias isn’t known.
How do I know if I have dementia?
The early signs and symptoms of dementia can be subtle. This study showed that many people think the early signs of dementia are a normal part of aging. While a small decline in memory is common for many older adults, that decline shouldn’t prevent a person from remember key life details like your address, the names of loved ones, or events in the recent past. Older adults with normal memory decline often just take longer to remember certain things, but eventually do. Those with dementia often lose certain memories and can’t recall them. On top of memory loss, those with dementia may have trouble with the following:
- Difficulty communicating or finding words
- Difficulty with complex tasks
- Difficulty planning and organizing
- Difficulty with coordination
- Feeling disoriented and getting lost
- Experience personality changes
- Difficulty to reasoning
- Inappropriate behavior
Can I prevent dementia?
Vascular dementia, which is the second most common cause of dementia, is entirely preventable. Eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in salt, added sugar, and saturated fat will help you avoid diabetes and high blood pressure, which leads to stroke and vascular dementia. Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia across the board. Cutting down on alcohol and quitting smoking can also drop your risk of developing dementia later in life. Finally, keeping your weight as close to the normal range as possible has also been shown to be of benefit. Unlike age, these risk factors are all something you can change.
Can dementia be treated?
While there is currently no cure for dementias like Alzheimer’s, Lewy body or frontotemporal dementia, many medications are available to help control the symptoms. Identifying symptoms early is key to managing them well. Early on, medications can help to keep the symptoms at bay while adjustments are made within the family and at home to ease the burden of the disease. In the case of vascular dementia, dropping some of a person’s risk factors can stop the progression of the disease by preventing future strokes.
How does this article apply to me?
While you might think you know a lot about dementia, chances are good that you have some big holes in what you know and you may carry many of the misperceptions found in this study. If you or a loved one has symptoms you think might be suggestive of dementia, don’t shrug it off as part of old age. The sooner you get them into see someone, the better their chances of slowing the progress of their disease and maybe even stopping it. Remember, there are many changes you can make to lower your risk, no matter what your age.