Dementia is a term used to describe a wide variety of diseases that affect the brain and how it functions. It is a general term—much like the term “cancer”—under which many other diseases and symptoms fall. Dementia is a progressive disease (meaning that symptoms will worsen over time), and it is a disease for which there is currently no cure. Medications are available, however, to help slow the progression of the disease. It is estimated that 1 in 10 adults over the age of 65 will be affected by this disease in their lifetime, with the number climbing to 1 in 2 for adults living to the age of 85. Once a person is diagnosed with Dementia, the average life span is 8-12 years.
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most commonly diagnosed form of Dementia. It is caused by abnormal protein deposits accumulating in the brain, causing brain cells to die. This process results in a person losing skills—most notably short-term memory, language and communication skills, and impulse control. They may have difficulty remembering recent dates and events. At times it may seem that a person is “making up” stories to fill in the gaps in their memory. Personality changes are common, including irritability, paranoia, and agitation. People will get disoriented and may wander or get lost, and it becomes unsafe for people with Dementia to continue to live independently. In later stages of the disease, people may forget to eat or drink, lose the ability to control bodily functions, and eventually will require intensive nursing level care prior to their death.
There is on-going research on Dementia, and hope that one day there will be a cure for the disease. This research points to certain “lifestyle” changes as being helpful in possibly preventing the disease. Most experts agree that anything a person can do to stay alert and active is beneficial in preventing Dementia. Maintaining a healthy weight, nutritious low-fat diets, getting physical exercise, and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol are all helpful. Research also suggests that Vitamins E and C are important in fighting the disease. There has also been recent research indicating that controlling chronic inflammation may be helpful in prevention of Dementia. Finally, staying alert and engaged with other people and keeping the brain “exercised” by reading, working puzzles, etc. seems to help maintain brain function into the elderly years.