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Dementia is a loss of thinking, remembering, and reasoning skills. Dementia isn’t a single disease or condition. Instead, it’s an umbrella term used to describe memory loss and a decline in cognitive function.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease progresses over time and continues to cause a decline in memory, language, and thought.
To be considered dementia, at least two brain functions must be impaired, including:
Some dementias worsen over time while others are treatable.
Dementia symptoms involve two areas of change: cognitive and psychological. Common signs and symptoms include:
Diagnosing dementia requires your doctor to do two things: first, determine the loss of cognitive function and two, assess what a person is still able to do. This requires a number of tests.
To start, your doctor will review your medical history and symptoms and then conduct a physical examination. Because people with dementia might not recognize their own cognitive decline, your doctor will also likely ask someone close to you about your symptoms as well.
These tests examine both physical and mental capacity, including attention, balance, judgment, language skills, memory, orientation, reasoning, reflexes, senses, thinking skills, visual perception and other areas.
CT or MRI. These scans can check for evidence of stroke or bleeding or tumor or hydrocephalus.
PET scans. These can show patterns of brain activity and whether deposits of the amyloid or tau protein are in the brain.
Simple blood work is taken to look for physical reasons for decline in brain function, like vitamin B-12 deficiency or an underactive thyroid gland. Spinal fluid can also be looked at for infection, inflammation or markers of conditions like dementia.
A mental health professional can determine whether depression or another mental health condition is contributing to your symptoms.
Since there is no cure for most types of dementia, treatments mostly focus on ways to manage symptoms with the right blend of medications and therapies to give the best quality of life.
Doctors might prescribe these medications to temporarily improve dementia symptoms.
Your doctor might prescribe additional medications that treat other symptoms or conditions, including agitation, depression, hallucinations, parkinsonism, and sleep disturbances.
Your doctor might decide to treat your dementia symptoms with approaches that don’t use medication, including:
Many factors can eventually contribute to dementia, some of which can be changed while others cannot.
Some risk factors that can’t be changed:
Not at this time. Although no cure has yet been identified for dementia, your doctor can offer treatments to slow its progression, ease your symptoms, and help improve the quality of your life.
Not directly. As the disease progresses, overall health declines. So, when someone with dementia dies, it’s usually the result of another condition or an acute illness like pneumonia.
While there is no cure for dementia, research has shown there are some practical steps you can take to reduce your risk factors for getting dementia. They include:
An MRI can help identify markers associated with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and predict who may eventually develop dementia.
Lewy body dementia (LBD) adversely affects brain cells over time, causing a type of progressive dementia that deteriorates the ability to think and reason and severely impedes independent function.
Parkinson’s disease is known more as a physical disorder that impacts movement. As it progresses, however, Parkinson’s disease can cause cognitive problems, including memory loss and dementia.
People with dementia tend to have problems sleeping, with up to half of patients with severe dementia experiencing sleep disturbances. As the dementia progresses, so too does the severity of their sleep disturbances.
One of the most common reasons why dementia patients have trouble sleeping is a phenomenon called “sundowning.” Taking place in the evening or during the night, people with dementia who are experiencing sundowning might feel confused, restless, agitated, anxious and aggressive.
Here are several additional reasons why people with dementia might have trouble sleeping at night: