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Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. This topic focuses on other conditions that cause dementia. For more information on Alzheimer's, see the topic Alzheimer's Disease.
What is dementia?
We all forget things as we get older. Many older people have a slight loss of memory that does not affect their daily lives. But memory loss that gets worse may mean that you have dementia.
Dementia is a loss of mental skills that affects your daily life. It can cause problems with your memory and how well you can think and plan. Usually dementia gets worse over time. How long this takes is different for each person. Some people stay the same for years. Others lose skills quickly.
Your chances of having dementia rise as you get older. But this doesn't mean that everyone will get it.
If you or a loved one has memory loss that is getting worse, see your doctor. It may be nothing to worry about. If it is dementia, treatment may help.
What causes dementia?
Dementia is caused by damage to or changes in the brain. Things that can cause dementia include:
What are the symptoms?
Usually the first symptom is memory loss. Often the person who has a memory problem doesn't notice it, but family and friends do. As dementia gets worse:
- You may have more trouble doing things that take planning, like making a list and going shopping.
- You may have trouble using or understanding words.
- You may get lost in places you know well.
Over time, people with dementia may begin to act very differently. They may become scared and strike out at others, or they may become clingy and childlike. They may stop brushing their teeth or bathing.
Later, they cannot take care of themselves. They may not know where they are. They may not know their loved ones when they see them.
How is dementia diagnosed?
There is no single test for dementia. To diagnose it, your doctor will:
- Do a physical examination.
- Ask questions about recent and past illnesses and life events. The doctor will want to talk to a close family member to check details.
- Ask you to do some simple things that test your memory and other mental skills. Your doctor may ask you to tell what day and year it is, repeat a series of words, or draw a clock face.
The doctor may do tests to look for a cause that can be treated. For example, you might have blood tests to check your thyroid or to look for an infection. You might also have a test that shows a picture of your brain, like an MRI or a CT scan. These tests can help your doctor find a tumour or brain injury.
The doctor will also ask you what medicines you’re taking. This is called a medicine check-up. Some medicines can affect your memory or the way your mind works. These side effects of certain medicines are easy to correct, but they’re often overlooked as the cause of symptoms.
How is it treated?
There are medicines you can take for dementia. They cannot cure it, but they can slow it down for a while and make it easier to live with.
As dementia gets worse, a person may get depressed or angry and upset. An active social life, counselling, and sometimes medicine may help with changing emotions.
If a stroke caused the dementia, there are things you can do to reduce the chance of another stroke. Stay at a healthy weight, exercise, and keep your blood pressure and cholesterol at normal levels. If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar in your target range. If you smoke, cut back and try to quit.
How can you help a loved one who has dementia?
In early dementia, most people can function independently, take part in social activities, volunteer, or work. Your role as a care partner is important. You support the person and help them plan for the future. Encourage your loved one to make an advance care plan that states how they want to live when the dementia gets worse. And have your loved one name a person who will make care decisions if they are no longer able to make them, a substitute decision-maker.
Your loved one will need more and more care as dementia gets worse. Be kind to yourself. Schedule breaks to recharge, and ask other family members or community supports for help. Home care is available to Albertans to help your loved one be safe and independent at home for as long as possible. If they need 24-hour care, then the home care nurse can help support the transition to a supportive living facility or long-term care facility.
You are not alone. Many people have loved ones with dementia. Ask your doctor about local support groups, or search the Internet for online support groups, such as the Alzheimer Society of Canada. Help is available.
Dementia is caused by damage to or changes in the brain.
Common causes of dementia are:
Less common causes of dementia include:
- Huntington's disease.
- Leukoencephalopathies, which are diseases that affect the deeper, white-matter brain tissue.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal condition that destroys brain tissue.
- Brain injuries from crashes or boxing.
- Some cases of multiple sclerosis (MS) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
- Multiple-system atrophy (a group of degenerative brain diseases affecting speech, movement, and autonomic functions).
- Infections such as late-stage syphilis. Antibiotics can effectively treat syphilis at any stage, but they cannot reverse the brain damage already done.
Some disorders that cause dementia can run in families. Doctors often suspect an inherited cause if someone younger than 50 has symptoms of dementia. For more information, see the topic Alzheimer's Disease.
Symptoms of dementia vary depending on the cause and the area of the brain that is affected. Symptoms include:
- Memory loss. This is usually the earliest and most noticeable symptom.
- Trouble recalling recent events or recognizing people and places.
- Trouble finding the right words.
- Problems planning and carrying out tasks, such as balancing a chequebook, following a recipe, or writing a letter.
- Trouble exercising judgment, such as knowing what to do in an emergency.
- Trouble controlling moods or behaviours. Depression is common, and agitation or aggression may occur.
- Not keeping up personal care such as grooming or bathing.
Some types of dementia cause particular symptoms:
- People who have dementia with Lewy bodies often have highly detailed visual hallucinations. And they may fall frequently.
- The first symptoms of frontotemporal dementia may be personality changes or unusual behaviour. People with this condition may not express any caring for others, or they may say rude things, expose themselves, or make sexually explicit comments.
Symptoms of dementia that come on suddenly suggest vascular dementia or possibly delirium, which is short-term confusion caused by a new or worsening illness.
It is important to know that memory loss can be caused by conditions other than dementia, such as depression, and that those conditions can be treated. Also, occasional trouble with memory (such as briefly forgetting someone's name) can be a normal part of aging. But if you are worried about memory loss or if a loved one has memory loss that is getting worse, see your doctor.
How quickly dementia progresses depends on what is causing it and the area of the brain that is affected. Some types of dementia progress slowly over several years. Other types may progress more rapidly. If vascular dementia is caused by a series of small strokes, the loss of mental skills may be gradual. If it is caused by a single stroke in a large blood vessel, loss of function may occur suddenly.
The course of dementia varies greatly from one person to another. Early diagnosis and treatment with medicines may help for a while. Even without these medicines, some people remain stable for months or years, while others decline rapidly.
Many people with dementia are not aware of their mental decline. They may deny their condition and blame others for their problems. Those who are aware may mourn their loss of abilities and become hopeless and depressed.
Depending on the type of dementia, the person's behaviour may eventually become out of control. The person may become angry, agitated, and combative or clingy and childlike. They may wander and become lost. These problems can make it difficult for family members or others to continue providing care at home. Hospice palliative care can offer families a lot of support and assistance, which is why getting hospice palliative care early is so important.
For more information on how hospice palliative care can help people and family coping with dementia, see the topic Hospice Palliative Care.
Even with the best care, people with dementia tend to have a shorter lifespan than the average person their age. The progression varies depending on the disease causing the dementia and whether the person has other illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease. Death usually results from lung or kidney infections caused by being bedridden.
What to think about
Many older people have a slight loss of mental skills (usually recent memory) that doesn't affect their daily functioning. This is called mild cognitive impairment by some. People who have mild impairment may be in the early stage of dementia, or they may stay at their present level of ability for a long time.
When To Call
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if signs of a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) develop suddenly. These may include:
- Numbness, weakness, or inability to move the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
- Vision problems in one or both eyes, such as dimness, blurring, double vision, loss of vision, or feeling like a shade is being pulled down over your eyes.
- Confusion, or trouble speaking or understanding.
- Trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.
- Severe headache with no known cause.
Call a doctor now if a person suddenly becomes confused or emotionally upset or doesn't seem to know who or where they are. These are signs of delirium, which can be caused by a reaction to medicines or a new or worsening medical condition.
Call a doctor if you or a person you are close to has new and troubling memory loss that is more than an occasional bout of forgetfulness. This may be an early sign of dementia.
Occasional forgetfulness or memory loss can be a normal part of aging. But any new or increasing memory loss or problems with daily living should be reported to a doctor. Learn the warning signs of dementia, and talk to a doctor if you or a family member shows any of these signs. They include increased trouble finding the right words when speaking, getting lost going to familiar places, and acting more irritable or suspicious than usual.
Examinations and Tests
Doctors diagnose the cause of dementia by asking questions about the person's medical history and doing a physical examination, a mental status examination, and lab and imaging tests.
Tests can help the doctor learn whether the loss of mental abilities is caused by a treatable condition. Even for causes that cannot be treated, knowing the type of dementia a person has can help the doctor prescribe medicines or other treatments that may improve mood and behaviour and help the family.
During a medical history and physical examination, the doctor will ask the affected person and a close relative or partner about recent illnesses or other life events that could cause memory loss or other symptoms such as behavioural problems. The doctor may ask the person to bring in all medicines they take. This can help the doctor find out if the problem might be caused by the person being overmedicated or having a drug interaction.
Although a person may have more than one illness causing dementia, symptoms sometimes can distinguish one form from another. For example, early in the course of frontotemporal dementia, people may display a lack of social awareness and develop obsessions with eating.
Mental status examination
A doctor or other health professional will conduct a mental status examination. This test usually involves such activities as having the person tell what day and year it is, repeat a series of words, draw a clock face, and count back from 100 by 7s.
Many medical conditions can cause mental impairment. During a physical examination, the doctor will look for signs of other medical conditions and have lab tests done to find any treatable condition. Routine tests include:
Other lab tests that may be done include:
Brain imaging tests such as CT scans and MRI may also be done to make sure another problem isn't causing the symptoms. These tests may rule out brain tumours, strokes, normal-pressure hydrocephalus, or other conditions that could cause a loss of mental abilities.
MRI and CT scans can also show evidence of strokes that may have caused vascular dementia.
Single photon emission CT (SPECT) and PET scan can help identify several forms of dementia, including vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia.
In some cases, electrical activity in the brain may be measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG). Doctors seldom use this test to diagnose dementia, but they may use it to distinguish dementia from delirium and to look for unusual brain activity found in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare cause of dementia.
After death, an autopsy may be done to find out for sure what caused dementia. This information may be helpful to family members concerned about genetic causes.
Medicines may slow down dementia, but they don't cure it. They may help improve mental function, mood, or behaviour.
Hospice palliative care
Your doctor will work with you and your caregivers to develop a plan to make life easier and more comfortable. This is a good time to ask for information on local hospice palliative care programs.
Hospice palliative care can help improve quality of life for the caregivers and for the person with dementia long before end of life. It's different from care to cure the illness. Its goal is to improve quality of life—not just in body but also in mind and spirit. For more information, see the topic Hospice Palliative Care.
Care may include:
- Tips to help the person be independent and manage daily life as long as possible. For more information, see Home Treatment.
- Medicine. While medicines cannot cure dementia, they may help improve mental function, mood, or behaviour.
- Support and counselling. A diagnosis of dementia can create feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety. A person in the early stage of the illness should seek emotional support from family, friends, and perhaps a counsellor experienced in working with people who have dementia.
Planning for the future
If possible, make decisions while your loved one is able to take part in the decision making. These are difficult but important conversations. Questions include:
- What kind of care do they need right now?
- Who will take care of them in the future?
- What can the family expect as the disease progresses?
- What kind of financial and legal planning needs to be done?
Education of the family and other caregivers is critical to successfully caring for someone who has dementia. If you are or will be a caregiver, start learning what you can expect and what you can do to manage problems as they arise. For more information, see Home Treatment.
Treatment as dementia gets worse
The goal of ongoing treatment for dementia is to keep the person safely at home for as long as possible and to provide support and guidance to the caregivers.
Routine follow-up visits to a health professional (every 3 to 6 months) are necessary to monitor medicines and the person's level of functioning.
Eventually, the family may have to consider whether to place the person in a care facility that has a dementia unit.
Taking care of a person with dementia is stressful. If you are a caregiver, seek support from family members or friends. Take care of your own health by getting breaks from caregiving. Counselling, a support group, and adult day care or respite care can help you through stressful times and bouts of burnout.
Dementia is hard to prevent, because what causes it often is not known. But people who have dementia caused by stroke may be able to prevent future declines by lowering their risk of heart disease and stroke. Even if you don't have these known risks, your overall health can benefit from these strategies:
- Treat or prevent high blood pressure.
- Don't smoke.
- Stay at a healthy weight. This also reduces your risk of diabetes, another risk factor for dementia.
- Keep your cholesterol in the normal range.
- Get plenty of exercise.
- Stay mentally alert by learning new hobbies, reading, or solving crossword puzzles.
- Stay involved socially. Attend community activities, church, or support groups.
- If your doctor recommends it, take aspirin.
Home treatment for dementia involves teamwork among health professionals and caregivers to create a safe and comfortable environment and to make tasks of daily living as easy as possible. People who have mild dementia can be involved in planning for the future and organizing the home and daily tasks.
Tips for caregivers
Work with the team of health professionals to:
The team can also help you learn how to manage behaviour problems. For example, you can learn ways to:
Caregivers should remember to seek support from other family and friends. For more information, see the topic Caregiver Tips.
Moving to a nursing home
Even with the best care, a person with progressive dementia will decline, perhaps to the point where the caregiver is no longer physically, emotionally, or financially able to provide care.
The family will have to think about when the person may need to move to a care facility with a dementia unit.
Doctors use medicines to treat dementia in the following ways:
- To maintain mental functioning for as long as possible
- To prevent further strokes in people who have dementia caused by stroke (vascular dementia)
- To manage mood or behaviour problems, such as depression, insomnia, hallucinations, and agitation
Medicines to help maintain mental function
- Cholinesterase inhibitors such as donepezil, galantamine, and rivastigmine.
- These drugs were developed to treat Alzheimer's disease, but they may be tried in other dementias, especially vascular dementia.
- It is not clear how long these medicines will work.
- Side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss.
- Memantine. This medicine is used to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, but may also help with mild to moderate vascular dementia.
Many behaviour problems can be managed without medicines. For more information, see Home Treatment.
In some cases, the doctor may prescribe:
Medicines to prevent future strokes
- The doctor may prescribe medicines for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, since these conditions are risk factors for vascular dementia. These drugs can't reverse existing dementia, but they may prevent future strokes and heart disease that can lead to further brain damage.
For more information, see the topics:
- Reality orientation. People who have dementia may benefit from a structured group program that encourages them to focus on a variety of topics and to think creatively within their limits. This type of program, sometimes called reality orientation or cognitive stimulation therapy, is offered in some daycare and residential settings.
- Validation therapy. A person who has dementia may say things that don't make sense. A caregiver's response may be to correct or disagree with him or her. This can be frustrating for everyone. Validation therapy is a way to talk to someone with empathy. It can help to give the person with dementia a feeling of control or calmness. It recognizes his or her feelings and emotions.
- Occupational therapy.Occupational therapists focus on a person's ability to perform daily tasks and take part in social activities.
- Music therapy. Research suggests that listening to or singing songs helps people with dementia to feel good. Often, a person with dementia still has their musical memories. Dementia doesn’t do as much damage to those areas of the brain.
- Social engagement. Spending time with others is important for both the person living with dementia and caregivers. Loneliness is a major factor for depression, which can make a person’s dementia symptoms worse.
- Birks J, Grimley Evans J (2009). Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
Adaptation Date: 5/25/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services