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Dementia itself is not a specific disease; rather, the term describes a cluster of symptoms that are the result of the brain damage caused by different diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to Lewy body dementia. Many of the early symptoms of dementia can be seen in patients of all types. Other symptoms are specific to certain types of dementia and may point towards a specific diagnosis.
Though many adults experience mild cognitive impairment with age, others will notice symptoms growing worse over time. Dementia is not a natural part of aging, so it is important to recognize symptoms sooner rather than later. If you notice these early warning signs in yourself, a friend, or a partner, consider talking to a medical professional sooner rather than later. By doing so, you can ensure that you get the care and treatment you need.
Common Early Symptoms of Dementia
Dementia can affect different people in different ways. Though individuals may experience differing symptoms, some early symptoms are particularly common. Before diagnosis, many individuals experience symptoms that fall under the umbrella of “mild cognitive impairment.” These symptoms are not severe enough to be considered dementia, but may be a possible indicator that dementia will develop. Some people will only experience mild symptoms, whereas others will see these symptoms progress into diagnosable dementia.
The most common early symptoms include memory loss, difficulty concentrating, confusion, and mood changes. Apathy or depression may affect those suffering from early-stage cognitive impairment. Individuals may find that confusion and cognitive difficulties have begun affecting their daily life in minor ways. Someone with mild cognitive impairment may struggle to follow a conversation or may get confused while carrying out daily tasks, such as grocery shopping, balancing a checkbook, or playing a board game. Following storylines in conversations, books, and television shows may become more challenging. Individuals may struggle to stay oriented outside of the house, forgetting once-familiar routes and landmarks. Though mild forgetfulness and confusion often occur after a certain age, any worsening symptoms should be discussed with a healthcare professional.
If cognitive impairments worsen, the diagnosis of a specific disease may be on the horizon.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, is associated with memory problems, repetitive questioning, confusion, difficulty with words and numbers, and feelings of anxiety and depression.
Vascular dementia, another form of cognitive disease, may appear on its own or in conjunction with Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals suffering from vascular dementia are more likely to struggle with movement problems and stroke-like symptoms, such as weakness or temporary paralysis on one side of the body. These individuals may experience mood changes, often becoming more emotional, and may struggle with reasoning, planning, and focus.
Dementia with Lewy bodies may appear similar to Alzheimer’s disease, but may also present additional symptoms. Those with Lewy body dementia may experience visual hallucinations, sleep disturbances, and fluctuating periods of being drowsy and alert. They may move more slowly and may struggle with falling or fainting.
Younger patients, often between the ages of 45 and 65, may also experience a condition known as frontotemporal dementia. Though less common than Alzheimer’s disease, this condition is also a possible diagnosis for those in this age category. Individuals may seem cold, distant, and lacking in social awareness. These personality changes may be particularly apparent to long-time friends and family members. Some patients may develop new obsessive or compulsive behaviors. Others may struggle with language and cognition.
If you or someone you love is experiencing these disease-specific symptoms, it is crucial to get them to a doctor as soon as possible. As dementia progresses, these symptoms are likely to worsen, and new symptoms may develop. It is important to talk to a healthcare provider to receive a proper diagnosis. By doing so, you can work towards slowing the progression of the disease.
Researchers are still learning more about how dementia develops and progresses. Though there is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia from developing, evidence suggests that leading a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk of developing dementia in old age. Maintaining your health will also lower your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, which are a common risk factor for vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Some risk factors for dementia are non-preventable. There are certain genetic factors that make some individuals more prone to developing dementia. One’s risk of developing dementia also increases with age, though it is a myth that dementia is an inevitable part of the aging process. Those who have lower education levels or struggle with hearing loss may be at greater risk than others. Those who struggle with loneliness and depression also appear to be more likely to develop dementia.
Though the aforementioned risk factors may be difficult to control, experts agree that there are many other ways in which we can reduce our dementia risk. Improving your diet can keep you at a healthy body weight and drastically reduce your risk of developing dementia as well as a host of other diseases. Cut back on the salt, sugar, and saturated fat in your diet and strive to eat more fresh, fiber-filled foods. Increase your daily physical activity; sit less, and strive to move around regularly. Ideally, adults should be striving to work two to three hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise into their schedules on a weekly basis. Brisk walking, cycling, swimming, and tennis are just a few ideas of ways you can get active. Strength-based exercises like yoga and weight training should also be practiced on a regular basis. Getting active is one of the best ways to lower your risk of heart disease and boost your cognitive health. A healthy mind and a healthy body are your best tools for keeping dementia at bay.
If you smoke, work on quitting. Smoking narrows arteries throughout the body, raising blood pressure and heightening one’s risk of developing a wide array of diseases, from cancer to dementia. If you’re a drinker, consider reducing your weekly alcohol consumption. Have just one or two drinks at a time and strive to have a number of alcohol-free days each week.
If you’re looking to improve your health, consider seeing your doctor for a general check-up. A healthcare professional can give you feedback about your current health and can suggest ways in which you can make further improvements. By taking care of your mental and physical health, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Though there is not yet an official cure for dementia, researchers have learned much more about the numerous diseases behind dementia and the ways in which they might be able to be treated in the future. Stem cell treatment, for instance, may one day be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Immunotherapy treatments may one day be used to reduce the formation of unwanted proteins in the brain, reducing the rate of disease progression.
Until better treatments are developed, prevention remains the best means of managing dementia risk. Improve your overall health by lowering your body weight and quitting unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive drinking. If you are middle-aged, improving your health has the potential to reduce your risk of developing dementia by up to 30%. If you do begin noticing the warning signs of dementia, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. By paying attention to your health today, you can ensure that you’ll live to see a healthy tomorrow.
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