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Symptoms and treatment of dementia

Dementia, defined as "apart or away from the mind," is a group of debilitating illnesses that affect memory, learning, behavior and communication. Although most dementia is degenerative or non-reversible, some dementia is treatable. Some causes of dementia that are treatable are brain tumors, thyroid conditions, low vitamin B12 levels, infections, various endocrine or metabolic disorders, and hydrocephalus ("water on the brain").

The two main types of degenerative dementia are vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Vascular dementia is caused by the patient having a series of strokes. This results in damage to nerve structures or blood vessels in the brain. Alzheimer's disease, also referred to as senile dementia, is the most common form of dementia. It is typically caused by an accumulation of an abnormal protein in certain areas of the brain which causes it to atrophy.

Symptoms of Dementia

Usually the first symptom of dementia to appear is forgetfulness. Often symptoms go unnoticed by others until the patient shows severe changes. Many of these symptoms include the following:

  • Progressive memory loss
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Decrease in judgment and problem-solving skills
  • Severe confusion
  • Altered perception
  • Impaired recognition of people and objects
  • Altered sleep patterns (either too much or too little)
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Disorientation
  • Impaired language ability
  • Personality or behavioral change

Dementia Treatment

Once a person is diagnosed by a physician, there are medications that can be prescribed to treat some of the symptoms. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are most commonly prescribed for anxiety, irritability, restlessness or disruptive behavior. In extreme cases with hallucinations and delusions, anti-psychotics may be used.

Dementia usually results in a decreased quality of life and the patient loses the ability to care for him or herself. This results in the need for monitoring and assistance at home or in an institutional setting. Family members typically are the primary caregivers when their loved one is first diagnosed. Other options are an in-home aide, adult day care, assisted living or a nursing home. It is best to provide familiar objects and faces to reduce the disorientation felt by the patient. Leaving the lights on at night and keeping a simple daytime schedule will also lessen confusion. At times the person may display unacceptable or dangerous behavior. A reward system for appropriate behaviors will sometimes help modify the behavior of the person.

Living with Dementia

It is critical for the loved ones to get a power of attorney and all other legal directives in the early stages of dementia before the patient is unable to make decisions. If not, it becomes much more difficult to get the treatment or get to the financial resources necessary for proper care. It is also important for the family members to find support groups and family counseling especially if they are providing in-home care. Dementia is a time of turmoil for the patient as well as those taking care of them.

There is no cure for degenerative dementia, so it is crucial to try to prevent or delay its onset. Since vascular dementia is caused by strokes, its occurrence can be reduced by controlling high blood pressure and diabetes, eating a low-fat diet, exercising regularly and by stopping smoking. Senile dementia cannot be prevented but its onset can be delayed by staying mentally active.

There have been some recent studies done on the effects of natural healing in dementia. One study showed that people with dementia had lower levels of antioxidants than the study controls. Antioxidants protect the body's cells from the damage done by free radicals, which may play a role in memory failure and stroke. So eating a diet packed with the antioxidants contained in fruits and vegetables may be a key to reducing the chance of developing dementia. A second study looked at the effects of ginkgo biloba on boosting memory and improving circulation. With increased blood flow, the brain may be more capable of slowing the progress of dementia.

By Julie Diaz

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