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Understanding dementia is vital to compassionate care

2016-1229-senior1-wAlzheimer’s disease is one of the more prominent forms of dementia, but there are many additional types of dementia that also can cause both physical and cognitive alterations. Understanding the complexity of dementia can be beneficial to both dementia sufferers and their caregivers.
Dementia is a general term used to define a decline in mental ability severe enough that it can interfere with daily life, offers the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.

Dementia is not a disease but a term used to describe a wide range of symptoms. The words “senility” and “dementia” often are incorrectly used interchangeably. However, serious mental decline is not a normal part of aging.

Dementia presents itself through various symptoms, and memory loss alone is not enough to lead to a dementia diagnosis. Dementia can affect thinking and social abilities, but the Mayo Clinic notes that some dementias may be reversible. The following are some common symptoms of dementia:

  • Trouble communicating or finding words.
  • Difficulty completing complex tasks.
  • Challenges with planning and organization.
  • Episodes of confusion and disorientation.
  • Memory loss, which is often noticed by a third party.
  • Personality changes that can include agitation, anxiety, inappropriate behavior and even hallucinations.

Apart from Alzheimer’s disease, which is a progressive disorder most common in people age 65 and older, there are other types of dementia. The second most common is called vascular dementia. This results from damage to vessels that supply blood to the brain. This damage can be the result of stroke, smoking and other blood vessel conditions. Brain imaging can often detect blood vessel problems implicated in vascular dementia.

Dementia with Lewy bodies, or DLB, is another dementia that laymen may mistake for Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that people with DLB often have not only memory loss and cognitive problems common in Alzheimer’s, but they also display initial or early symptoms such as sleep disturbances, well-formed visual hallucinations, slowness, gait imbalance or other Parkinsonian movement features, which can lead to misdiagnosis.

If physicians suspect dementia was caused by various factors, a person may be diagnosed with mixed dementia.

Unfortunately, there are no cures for progressive dementias that are linked to plaque tangles in the brain and changes in the way the brain processes the protein alpha-synuclein. Patience and various medications may be needed to help those with dementia live fuller lives. Cholinesterase inhibitors are mainstays in dementia treatment. These medications prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger important for learning and memory. Acetylcholine supports communication among nerve cells by keeping acetylcholine levels high. Physical therapy and cognitive therapy may be used in conjunction with medication to assist those with various dementias.

Helping individuals with dementia remain comfortable is a priority for caregivers, and understanding the symptoms and treatments can help caregivers make patients and loved ones as comfortable as possible.

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