The United States’ Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as “a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.” Contrary to what some of us may believe, it is not a single specific disease, but rather an umbrella term that applies to a wide range of symptoms.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. The second most common type is vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke.
It must be highlighted that the idea that severe mental decline comes with old age (often under names such as “senility” or “senile dementia”) is a misconception. Dementia is an illness, not a part of natural aging, and must therefore be treated as such.
As for the symptoms, they can vary depending on the specific illness, but at least two of the following mental functions must be severely impaired in order for it to be considered dementia:
- Communication and language
- Ability to focus and pay attention
- Reasoning and judgement
- Visual perception
These symptoms often get progressively worse–they start slowly and worsen more quickly as time goes by. Detecting them early is key to ensuring proper treatment if possible and preparing for future care if and when it becomes necessary.
The cause of dementia is damage to brain cells, which prevents them from communicating with each other. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the first region of the brain whose cells are affected is usually the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. This explains why memory loss is among the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Unfortunately, there is no single test that can help doctors diagnose dementia. Diagnoses are made following a careful look at a patient’s “medical history, a physical examination, laboratory tests, and the characteristic changes” in thinking and everyday function and behaviour.
In addition, most types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, have no cure or treatment, many of them being a product of old age and genetics. Some drugs can temporarily alleviate certain symptoms, but more research is needed in the field to create a better solution. Enrolling in clinical trials to improve the medical community’s knowledge base could make a great difference for future generations.
And while there is no cure, maintaining a healthy diet and active physical lifestyle can lower a person’s chances of developing dementia. This is especially important as our population continues to age and dementia rates are expected to soar in the coming decades. The Globe and Mail recently reported that Canada is the only G7 nation “without a national dementia strategy” (though some provinces do have their own) and the World Health Organization has declared the disease “a growing public concern.”
If you or someone you know needs help dealing with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, Alzheimer Societies across Ontario offer the program called First Link, which “helps connect people with dementia and their caregivers to support and education so they can cope with changes associated with the disease.” For more information, please visit the Alzheimer Society website, or call their toll-free number at 1-800-879-4226.
If you would like to share your story as someone affected by dementia, either personally or indirectly, be sure to leave a comment on this post (anonymously if you wish) or on its related Facebook post!