Dementia is the broad term used to describe all the diseases and conditions associated with memory disorders. It may affect any age group but is more common in the elderly, which is where it is often mistaken for senility. In addition, trauma, stroke, and medical conditions like infection or drug reactions, can lead to Dementia, amnesia, and other conditions with memory loss.
Many people think that Dementia and senility are the same things, but they are not. Senility is the normal physical and mental slowing down that normally occurs as we age. Dementia is a brain malfunction.
Signs of Dementia
- Short-term memory loss
- Difficulty with paying bills
- Continually forgetting to do common activities such as making meals, going to appointments after reminders, and getting lost in general community settings.
- Inability to communicate
- Inability to learn new things
- Language problems
- Repeating questions
- Trouble with reasoning
- Wandering or getting lost
Symptoms are progressive. They begin as a minor annoyance and become progressively worse over time until the ability to function independently is questionable.
Dementia presents in several different ways. Some of the more common are the following:
Alzheimer’s Disease (see more detail below) –The most common form of Dementia. With Alzheimer’s, the nerves in the brain become tangled, form plaques, and lose their connections to other nerves reducing overall brain function and even size.
Vascular Dementia – Damage from blocked or decreased blood flow to the brain tissue causes Vascular Dementia, the second most common type of Dementia and is often related to strokes.
Dementia with Lewy bodies – As brain tissue breaks down, abnormal protein deposits form called Lewy bodies. These protein bodies create the symptoms of Dementia.
Frontotemporal Dementia – As the nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain die, the brain shrinks, resulting in Dementia.
Mild Cognitive Impairment – Mild decline in a person’s ability to think, make decisions, remember, speak clearly, use language correctly, etc., but the decline is not so severe that it interferes with regular activities.
Mixed Dementia – A combination of symptoms caused by Alzheimer’s Disease and Vascular Dementia.
Alzheimer’s, the most common and rapidly progressing form of Dementia, accounts for 60-80% of all Dementia cases. For example, memory loss is mild in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. At the same time, in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation or respond to their environment. A person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis. However, individuals live for as long as 20 years in some cases. Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.
10 Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
If you identify any of the following warning signs, seek medical advice for possible treatment options.
- Forgetting information recently learned, important dates, and events, asking the same question repetitively.
- Demonstrating increasing difficulty with following a plan, problem-solving, and completing a sequential task to a conclusion.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks, driving to familiar locations, and remembering the rules of a familiar game.
- Confusion with the concept of the passage of time or recognizing place (i.e., keeping track of the date, season, the holiday).
- The trouble with visual images and spatial relationships is judging distance and determining color contrast causing issues with driving and other functions where contrast and depth perception is needed.
- New problems with words in speaking or writing, such as having trouble following a conversation. May repeat what has been said by someone else as new information; believes new information they bring is new to everyone. Uses the wrong word for objects.
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. Forgets what they did with things and accuses someone of stealing them.
- Decreased or poor judgment taking risks where they shouldn’t.
- Withdrawal from work or social activities due to difficulty in holding conversations.
- Changes in mood and personal such as confusion, suspicion, depression, fearfulness, or anxiety, are common.
Behavior Changes with Alzheimer’s Progression
As the condition progresses, you may also see personality and behavior changes—some of which may be difficult to accept. Remember, your loved one cannot control what is happening to them and would not take on the negative behaviors they may now display if they could stop themselves. With Alzheimer’s, the personality changes are due to impairments in brain function changes—like an amputation. Once the part is gone, it doesn’t grow back. The same is true currently for Alzheimer’s. Once the part of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s dies, that functionality ceases. Other parts of the brain attempt to compensate, but they may not work the same. Therefore, try to see the personality changes of your family member through the eyes of grace.
Behaviors you might see with Alzheimer’s:
- Becoming upset, worried, angry, or suspicious very easily
- Acting depressed, sad, or uninterested in anything
- Hiding things or believing other people hid things from them
- Imaging that they see things that are not there
- Wandering away from where they are supposed to be
- Pacing a lot
- Showing unusual sexual behavior
- Hitting you or other people
- Misunderstanding what they see, hear, or read
- Stops caring about their appearance and hygiene
Resource information for Alzheimer’s and Dementia
5 Tips for Talking to Your Loved One with Dementia
How to Respond to Delusions in Dementia
Three Things to Never do with your loved one with Dementia
Dissociative Disorder – Another Type of Memory Loss
Dissociative Disorder develops as a defense mechanism following some serious trauma. Often occurring as a means of escaping ongoing abuse, violent attacks, disasters, or combat, the individual unconsciously escapes from reality by disconnecting their thoughts, identity, consciousness, or memories from what is real to what is not real. Anyone finding themselves trapped in an emotionally threatening situation that they cannot control may escape unconsciously to cope with the situation. However, as the situation becomes worse, so do their symptoms. Memory loss becomes their means of self-preservation.
There are three types of dissociative disorders – dissociative amnesia, depersonalization disorder, and dissociative identity disorder.
Dissociative Amnesia – The person may forget most of their personal information (name, personal history, friends). There are several types of dissociative amnesia.
- Localized – The person cannot remember a specific event or has a particular memory gap. For example, losing all memory of a car accident where they sustained serious injuries.
- Selective – Forgetting a particular part of an event, such as the moment of impact during a car accident.
- Continuous – A person forgets each new event as it occurs following a traumatic occurrence.
- Systematized – Loss of memories related to a specific category or individual, such as forgetting someone who died in an accident due to the painful memories associated with the event.
- Generalized – Loss of all former memories, including their identity and personal history. This form of amnesia is very rare and usually associated with severe trauma.
Dissociative Fugue is often associated with dissociative amnesia and occurs in only 0.2% of all amnesia cases. Like dissociative amnesia, the person does not know who they are, but they also travel away from their home, often wandering around bewildered and confused. Once they come out of the Fugue, they have no memory of what occurred while in the fugue state. However, they may start a new life during the Fugue and act entirely normal.
Depersonalization Disorder feels like being detached or disconnected from your body and thoughts. Those with the condition say it feels like they float above themselves, observing what they do “from the outside looking in,” somewhat as if in a dream. Episodes may last minutes or years.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) – Formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, people with DID develop more than one complete identity. The separate identities control the behaviors of the individual at different times. Each identity has a unique history, traits, ages, genders, and personalities. Alternate identities do not know one another, creating gaps in memories for the primary identity, who may not know about the alternates. The appearance of the alternates is unpredictable and uncontrollable but appears more often during periods of stress and anxiety. DID is rare, occurring in only 1% of the population.
Common signs and symptoms of Dissociative conditions include:
- Significant memory loss of specific times, people, and events.
- Out-of-body experiences (Like watching yourself outside your body)
- A sense of detachment from your emotions or emotional numbness
- Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide
- A lack of a sense of self-identity
Treatment usually requires psychotherapy and medication, and it can be difficult to achieve a successful outcome.