You may see more people wearing purple this month. That’s because June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month, part of a global effort to educate people about brain health and different types of dementia.
As of 2018, these diseases have no cure. What’s more, they’re often difficult to diagnose, because their symptoms mimic the more common signs of aging. After all, everyone forgets where they left their keys once in a while, or has trouble finding the right word. In this post, we discuss the more common signs of dementia, causes, and diagnosis.
First Things First: What Is Dementia?
Many people think that dementia is a disease. It isn’t. Dementia describes any condition marked by a deterioration in cognitive function that is severe enough to impact daily life.
It’s important to note that dementia is NOT a normal part of aging. We often associate the two, because risk rises with age, but most people never experience dementia. For example, around 50 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease, which is admittedly a lot of people. However, there were over 900 million people over the age of 60 in 2015. That means that less than 6 percent of the world’s seniors have Alzheimer’s. Clearly, it is not a normal part of aging.
What Are the Types of Dementia?
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which makes up around 70 percent of dementia cases. A distant second place, affecting fewer than 10 percent of dementia patients, is vascular dementia, which is often associated with stroke. Other types of dementia include:
- Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB): Some symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s but early signs typically differ and include visual hallucinations and sleep disturbances.
- Mixed dementia: Patients experience deteriorating cognitive function with two or more causes occurring simultaneously. Risk is highest in people over the age of 85.
- Parkinson’s disease: Progression is similar to that of Alzheimer’s and DLB, but the most common symptom is difficulty with movement.
- Frontotemporal dementia: Includes a variety of conditions, such as Pick’s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy, that are marked by personality and behavioral changes.
Other dementia types include Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, normal pressure hydrocephalus, Huntington’s disease, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
What Causes Dementia?
Although we don’t fully understand the exact cause of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, we do know that the brain cells in these patients are damaged. We also know that certain symptoms and types of dementia occur in concert with damage to the corresponding areas of the brain. For example, one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. The area of the brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus, is typically the first area that shows evidence of damage in Alzheimer’s patients.
What Are the Signs of Dementia?
There are numerous dementia symptoms, but the earliest and most common sign is short-term memory problems. Again, though, many of these symptoms resemble what happens naturally as we age. To diagnose dementia, doctors look at five mental functions:
- Communication, including speech and writing
- Mental focus and the ability to pay attention
- Rational thinking, including decision making and judgment
- Visual perception, including reading, color contrast, and judging distance
The patient must show significant impairment in at least two of these functions before dementia is diagnosed. If you or someone you know fits this description, schedule a doctor appointment as soon as possible.
What Happens During Your Doctor Appointment?
If you’re worried you have dementia, it’s best to start with a visit to your primary doctor. He or she has a more thorough understanding of what’s normal for you and is therefore better equipped to notice changes. Your primary physician will likely refer you to a neurologist if he or she suspects Alzheimer’s or another dementia, because diagnosis is often challenging. This is because many of the types of dementias share symptoms.
Your doctor begins by taking a complete medical history and conducting a physical exam. He or she will ask questions about your daily habits as well as any cognitive difficulties you’ve experienced. Answer these questions as honestly as possible.
How to Prepare for the Doctor Visit
Discussing these issues can feel overwhelming and even frightening. You get the most benefit from your appointment if you prepare ahead of time. This helps ensure you don’t forget to mention symptoms or issues you’ve been experiencing. Bring written notes of the following:
- Your medical issues: If you have experienced or are experiencing any medical issues, write them down. Also include any family history of relevant medical problems.
- Your symptoms: This includes a list of symptoms you have as well as when they began and how often they occur. Create a log or journal that tracks changes and symptoms, including as much information as possible.
- Your medications: Your doctor will want to know everything about any medications you take. Include both prescription and over-the-counter medications, the dosage you take, and when you began taking them.
Who Is at Risk of Dementia?
As stated above, although we know that brain cell damage causes dementia, we don’t know why that damage occurs in the first place. We do know that the most common risk factors are age and genetics. If you are over age 65 or have a family history, you are much more likely to have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
Of course, researchers are working overtime to discover a cause, since that greatly increases their ability to discover a cure. Current indications are that cardiovascular health may play a larger role than previously thought. This is because your brain relies on healthy blood flow to receive the oxygen and nutrients it needs.
Scientists have already linked a healthy cardiovascular network as a contributing factor to vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s, and DLB. That’s why doctors recommend healthy lifestyle habits to improve brain health. This includes:
- A heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats
- Regular exercise to improve circulation and maintain a healthy weight
- Controlling blood pressure and blood sugar
The Final Diagnosis
Currently, there is no cure for most types of dementia. We say “most types” because there are curable conditions that cause cognitive decline, such as vitamin deficiencies and thyroid issues. These ailments qualify as dementia, but they are not what most people think of when they hear or use that word.
Alzheimer’s and similar conditions are progressive diseases that get worse over time. There is no cure, but medications are available to help improve symptoms.
If you would like to help researchers find a cure, you can volunteer for a clinical study. Scientists need people from all races, genders, ages, and levels of health. Not sure how? The Alzheimer’s Association has a program called TrialMatch, that matches people interested in advancing Alzheimer’s research with a study they’d qualify for. Even if you receive a match, there’s no obligation to participate. If you do, though, your participation could help scientists find a cure.