Dementia isn’t a specific disease but rather a term used to refer to a person’s loss of cognitive abilities.
“Dementia describes a constellation of symptoms,” says Hayley B. Kristinsson, PsyD, a neuropsychologist with UCI Health Memory Disorder Services. These include the loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities.
An estimated 7 million Americans over age 65 are living with some form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form, but there are others, including frontotemporal dementia, which actor Bruce Willis’ family says has affected his motor skills and ability to communicate.
Dementia also may be caused by a stroke or other injuries that interfere with the brain’s blood supply.
Different types of dementia affect the brain in different ways. Neurodegenerative forms such as Alzheimer’s disease are the result of an accumulation of proteins that cause irreversible damage to neurons and brain tissue, Kristinsson says.
Early warning signs of dementia
Although many people are aware that memory loss is a warning sign, Kristinsson says there are a number of other cognitive changes to watch for.
The pattern of cognitive decline — such as loss of memory, executive function changes — also varies with the type of dementia, she notes.
With Alzheimer’s disease, memory is usually the first cognitive ability affected.
Depending on the dementia type, other changes can include:
- Language changes, such as struggling to find the right word or using the wrong word
- Changes to vision and spatial awareness, such as difficulty judging distances
- Executive function changes, such as a decline in problem-solving and judgment
- Mood and personality changes, including anxiety and depression
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks, concentration and follow-through
Signs of progression
“Dementia is often preceded by a period of mild cognitive impairment,” Kristinsson says.
During this time, individuals can carry out normal activities of daily living despite memory changes. Managing finances and taking medication, for example, are still possible.
“When the individual begins to have trouble with their daily living activities, it often signals that the disease has progressed and they may meet the criteria for a dementia diagnosis,” she notes.
Changes in personality, executive and emotional functioning may also signal disease progression.
Treatment for dementia depends on the type and where the patient is in the disease process.
Since neurodegenerative disorders are irreversible, most treatment is centered around slowing the decline and helping individuals adapt to the changes they experience, Kristinsson says.
Physicians may prescribe medications to slow progression and recommend modifications to living spaces to ensure a person’s safety.
Supplements have become increasingly popular as aids for cognitive health, but Kristinsson urges caution. Many are not FDA-approved and others labeled “natural” may contain powerful substances that can react negatively with prescription medications.
“I strongly recommend that you consult with your doctor before starting anything new,” she says.
If you have concerns about your memory or that of a loved one, call 949-824-8600 for more information or to make an appointment.