Dementia is a set of symptoms characterized by memory loss and decline in thinking skills acute enough that it impairs a person’s ability to do everyday activities. Worldwide, there are 47.5 million people affected by dementia and around 7.7 million new cases are reported each year (WHO statistics, 2016). In England and Wales, dementia is now the biggest cause of death based on the ONS Report. Dementia is the 6th leading cause of death in the US with about 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s according to the CDC.
Causes of Dementia
The primary cause of dementia is damage or destruction of the brain cells. As these cells communicate with each other, their destruction affects communication, thinking, feelings and behavior of the individual. When this happens, the person will be unable to carry on with normal tasks.
In particular, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Other triggers include Lewy body dementia and strokes. Head injury, cardiac arrest and radiation treatment may cause dementia. Additionally, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS and alcohol or drug abuse are less common causes of dementia. Although Pick’s disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease can also instigate dementia, these occasions are rare.
There are also modifiable disorders that can heighten the symptoms of dementia such as diabetes, emphysema and heart failure. Drugs can also temporarily worsen dementia symptoms and drinking alcohol may exacerbate dementia.
Dementia can exhibit a range of symptoms affecting several areas of a person’s brain functioning including memory, focus, attention span, communication and language. It affects sufferers progressively, typically over a period of 2 to 10 years, with symptoms gradually getting worse.
Doctors and health practitioners diagnose dementia by subjecting an individual to mental and neuropsychological tests. Treatable disorders will also be taken into account such as thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, drug toxicity and depression. The patient’s age, family history, test results and other neurologic disorders also play a role in the diagnosis. Blood tests and a computed tomography (CT) scan will be done to see if there is damage to the brain.
Genetics and age cannot be altered and remain high risk factors for dementia. However, there are things that can be done to prevent the premature onset of dementia. Researchers are currently studying how dementia can be prevented by addressing certain risk factors.
There is enough evidence to suggest that physical exercise might directly benefit the brain cells because it enhances the blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Ahlskog et al (2011 study) recognizes that aerobic exercises are linked to reduced cognitive decline and dementia. By itself, it prevents agitation and wandering.
Current evidence suggests that healthy diets that promote brain and heart health can also protect the memory. The Mediterranean diet involving mostly fish, olive oil and nuts is linked to lower rates of Alzheimer’s as well as a potential preventive measure against dementia (Feart et al, 2010). A recent study published in the American Academy of Neurology (January 2017) stated that older people who used the Mediterranean diet maintained more ‘brain volume’ that those who did not.
The brain is nourished by the flow of blood and oxygen. Avoiding smoking, controlling blood sugar and cholesterol levels and keeping a healthy weight help to protect the brain.
Dementia and Living Close to Major Roads
An observational study published in The Lancet Today (January 5, 2016) estimated that 7-11% of dementia cases occurred in patients who live within 50 meters of a road. Traffic exposure offers evidence that people who live near major arteries are slightly more at risk for succumbing to dementia. Further research is needed on this topic as it is not yet known whether tackling noise and air pollution (dirty air) could actually reduce the risk of dementia.
Going to the Sauna Can Lower Risk of Dementia
Researchers at the University of Finland monitored men aged 42-60 for 20 years. It was revealed that those who went to saunas 4 to 7 times per week were 66% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia. Sauna promotes cardiovascular health and an overall sense of wellbeing.
Delirium Might Accelerate Cognitive Decline
The research study undertaken by the UCL and the University of Cambridge showed evidence that delirium after a hospital stay can cause cognitive problems worsening memory and thinking issues which might signal the beginning of dementia. Further understanding how it can be prevented or treated is a priority area of study.
Currently, there is no treatment that can restore full mental function for people with dementia. However, treating disorders that worsen the symptoms of dementia slows mental decline.
What is important is to create a supportive environment for dementia sufferers. Those with mild to intermediate dementia can function best in familiar surroundings so they can usually remain at home provided safety checks are in place.
Another factor that helps dementia patients immensely is structure. This helps to give them a sense of security and stability and is why low-stress activities, both physical and mental assist in giving them independence and help maintain their dignities and self-esteem.
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