What is Dementia?

What is Dementia

Today we are barraged with information and “healthcare news” from many sources. This information can often be confusing, misleading, or simply incorrect, leading people to healthcare professionals to find clarity and truth on health topics. As a physician, I am frequently asked questions concerning Dementia. Let me share with you some of the common questions I receive and my answers to those questions.

What is Dementia?

Dementia manifests itself as mental, emotional, and physical loss that is insidious, irreversible, slowly progressive, and eventually fatal.

What Causes Dementia?

Dementia is a family of diseases with many causes, forms, and types.

In the United States, there are five main causes of dementia:

1. Alzheimer’s disease, also called Senile Dementia, is the most common
2. Vascular Dementia, also called Stroke Dementia
3. Pick’s Disease, also called Fronto-Temporal Dementia
4. Parkinson’s Dementia
5. Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease, also called Mad-Cow related Dementia

How Many People Have Dementia?

New statistics released from the World Alzheimer Report estimates that 35 Million people worldwide have been diagnosed with Dementia, and this number is expected to reach 115 Million by the year 2050. In the United States, a person is diagnosed with some form of Dementia every 70 seconds (approximately the time it will take you to read this article).

5 Conditions That Mimic Dementia

Statistics show that nearly 360,000 new cases of dementia are reported each year, some of which are falsely diagnosed. The reason: often times, seniors may exhibit dementia-like symptoms such as confusion, disorientation, impaired judgment, and insomnia. While these symptoms are common indicators of dementia, there are a number of health conditions that share these symptoms – many of which may be reversible.

Take a look at some of the most common conditions that are often mistaken for the early stages of dementia.

Adverse Drug Reactions: According to the FDA, adverse drug reactions affect nearly 350,000 nursing home patients every year. When certain medications are combined with one another, the interaction may cause dementia-like symptoms such as dizziness and forgetfulness (among others), leading to a potentially false diagnosis. For this reason, it’s important to always carry a list of current medications (including over-the-counter supplements) and to ALWAYS consult a physician or pharmacist before accepting a new prescription.

Depression & Other Mental Health Conditions: Depression and other mental health conditions have been known to cause cognitive impairment including: difficulty thinking, confusion, social withdrawal, and other changes in one’s reasoning and behavior. For seniors, depression is common (affecting nearly 6.5 million seniors every year) and the development of these symptoms may often lead to a misdiagnosis of dementia. If your loved one exhibits signs of depression or sudden changes in behavior and mood, be sure to seek the help of a professional. A thorough examination may be the best way to determine whether these symptoms are caused by depression or something more serious (dementia).

Urinary tract infection (UTI): Urinary tract infection (UTI) is a common cause of misdiagnosed dementia and it accounts for nearly 25-30% of all infections in seniors. The symptoms of UTI are very similar to dementia, causing delirium, confusion, memory problems and even hallucinations. For seniors, these symptoms are not always obvious (they rarely cause pain) which makes it difficult to detect. If left untreated, the infection can spread to other areas of the body including the kidney, leading to serious (and potentially fatal) complications. According to research, the single best indicator of UTIs among seniors is a sudden change in behavior. If your loved one exhibits any of these symptoms, consult a physician immediately.

Thyroid Condition: Thyroid disorders are often mistaken for the early stages of dementia simply because the symptoms of both are very similar – causing a senior to feel anxious, forgetful and fatigued. Just like a UTI, the symptoms may not be obvious to seniors which may lead to a misdiagnosis of dementia. To prevent these symptoms from recurring or worsening, it’s important to have your loved one’s thyroid levels checked. Doing so will help determine whether the cause of these symptoms is related to a thyroid disorder or some form of dementia.

Nutritional Deficiency: Nutritional deficiencies (like vitamins B, C, and E), along with other health conditions like hypertension and diabetes, have been known to cause dementia-like symptoms, especially in older adults. When our bodies receive insufficient nutrients, the brain loses its ability to function properly, often causing symptoms similar to those associated with dementia (confusion, impaired judgment, agitation, etc.). To ensure these (and other serious health problems) do not occur or worsen, be sure your loved one’s diet is complete with all essential nutrients – but ALWAYS consult a physician or dietitian before changing your or your loved one’s diet.

Before accepting a diagnosis of dementia, don’t be afraid to reach out to your loved one’s physician and rule out any of the above conditions. When discovered early, many of these can either be treated or managed, preventing dementia-like symptoms from occurring or worsening.

A dementia diagnosis can be devastating for families and the knowledge, resources, and emotion required to care for a loved one with dementia can be overwhelming. You may not be in the position to provide the necessary level of care, but we’re here to help.

Is There a Cure for Dementia?

No. Because Dementia has so many different causes the hope that there will be one treatment or one cure for all Dementia types remains highly unlikely. Currently, all Dementias are considered fatal. However, global massive research continues with the hope and goal of effective treatments and cures.

Is Dementia a Natural Consequence of Getting Old?

No. If this were true, every person over the age of 65 would have some form of Dementia. Reassuringly, we have great evidence that many people live well into their 80’s, 90’s, and beyond without any signs of Dementia.

Where Is the Best Place to Care for People with Dementia?

There is no one right answer to this question; each family has its own unique set of dynamics to consider. In the United States, dementia care has generally been provided in a nursing facility or by family members or private duty caregivers in the home.

If the number of people with Dementia continues to multiply as predicted, the demand will increasingly outnumber the beds available in facilities. At the same time, economic realities may force family members to continue working outside the home, making them unavailable to stay at home to care for their loved one with Dementia. As a result, a paradigm shift in caregiving options may be required.

In the meantime, most experts agree that, whenever possible, keeping the individual in familiar surroundings with daily contact by family and friends is a compassionate choice. As a physician and a humanitarian, I concur. Until a cure is available, surely mankind deserves care, comfort and compassion in one’s own home whenever possible.

At Sonas Home Health Care, you’re never alone. We refer loving and qualified caregivers and nurses to provide expert Alzheimer’s and dementia care, from a few hours a day to around-the-clock care. Contact us directly or Request a Free In-Home Assessment. Together we can determine the right plan of action for your loved one.

Geriatric Mental Health Foundation
National Alliance on Mental Illness