5 min read
Common misconceptions debunked
Learn the basics about dementia and our key takeaways for next steps after a diagnosis
We hear the term “dementia” in popular media and in conversations with friends and neighbors, but what does it really mean?
Contrary to popular usage, dementia is not a single disease or a disorder. Rather, it refers to a group of neurological disorders, with symptoms including loss of memory and other mental abilities that can significantly affect a person’s daily life over time. In this article we’ll introduce dementia basics as well as sharing our takeaways on next steps if you or a loved one has recently received a diagnosis.
What we mean when we talk about dementia
The word “dementia” generally describes loss of memory, language, problem-solving, and other cognitive abilities beyond the expected effects of aging. These symptoms stem from abnormal changes in the brain that increase over time. But because the term “dementia” is a general description of symptoms rather than a specific disorder, it can sometimes be misused or misunderstood. For example, many people may not realize that Alzheimer’s Disease is actually a type of dementia—the most common type in fact. Other types of dementia include:
Dementia with Lewy Bodies
Down Syndrome and Alzheimer's Disease
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Posterior Cortical Atrophy
Parkinson's Disease Dementia
Each type of dementia disorder has its own symptoms and treatments. However, sometimes symptoms can overlap or appear very similar, so it’s essential to advocate for yourself or your loved one before and after a diagnosis and consult specialists if needed. Because of the progressive nature of all types of dementia, it’s important to monitor changes and reactions to treatments so that adjustments can be made.
For more information, consult the Dementia Society for common and more rare conditions, syndromes and diseases that can cause, or include symptoms leading to Dementia.
Dementia quick facts
Dementia is not a disease—it’s a group of neurological disorders with related symptoms
Dementia symptoms include loss of memory, language, problem-solving, and other cognitive abilities that affect most aspects of daily life
Alzheimer’s Disease is a type of dementia
All types of dementia are progressive (symptoms increase over time)
Some treatments for dementia can help slow progression
Specialists can help achieve a specific dementia-type diagnosis
There are many organizations devoted to providing support for dementia
Common symptoms of dementia
Recognizing and diagnosing dementia symptoms as early as possible can help prepare for the way a person’s life will change and what kind of care and home environment will best support them. Keeping a close eye on symptoms will also help narrow down which type of dementia is being experienced and will help give doctors and care providers insight on how treatments are working or interacting with other medicines.
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends watching out for these 10 signs of dementia:
Memory loss that disrupts daily life - for example, forgetting recently learned information or asking the same question over and over
Challenges in planning or solving problems - For example, a change in ability that causes difficulty following a familiar recipe or keeping track of bills
Difficulty in completing familiar tasks - For example, getting lost on the way to a familiar location or forgetting the rules to a favorite game
Confusion with time or place - For example, someone who sometimes forgets where they are and how they got there
Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships - This may include trouble judging distance, contrast, colors, or challenges with reading
New problems with words in speaking or writing - For example, someone who struggles to join or follow conversation and naming familiar objects
Misplacing things or losing the ability to retrace steps - For example, hiding objects in unusual places and then being unable to find them
Decreased or poor judgment - For example, making poor decisions around money
Withdrawal from work or social activities - Difficulties in holding and following conversation may lead to withdrawing from group activities or interactions
Changes in mood or personality - For example, disruptions to routine may result in irritability, anxiety, confusion, or other emotional swings
Dementia disorders are progressive and can create many changes to a person’s life and needs over time. Once you have started noticing symptoms, it’s best to seek medical advice even if the symptoms seem mild or you just aren’t sure. Getting support in place at an early stage can help create stability and ease stress and worry for everyone involved.
Key takeaways for a Dementia diagnosis
As is the case with our health journey throughout life, advocating for yourself and your loved ones through proactive consultation, conversation, and questions with healthcare providers is paramount, both before a diagnosis and on an ongoing basis afterwards.
10 questions to ask your doctor about a dementia diagnosis
What type of dementia does my loved one have?
What caused their dementia?
What symptoms, other than memory loss, can we expect, and what will the pace of decline be?
What treatments are available?
What lifestyle changes will be helpful?
How should we talk to our family and friends about this diagnosis?
What plans should I make now to prepare for a time when my loved one can be less engaged in making decisions?
When will my loved one need additional support?
If my loved one has a problem that might be related to their dementia, who should I call?
What kinds of support and resources are available to us?
In addition to examining dementia symptoms, be sure your medical care provider assesses all aspects of your loved one’s health history to make a thorough diagnosis. There are certain conditions that can mimic dementias, but are actually reversible, for example, UTIs, dehydration, polypharmacy, and delirium.
Once you’ve received a diagnosis, gathering as much information as possible can help you create a care plan, taking into account factors such as the rate of progression, current and future care needs, what kind of support your family and community can provide, finances, and changes that need to be made to the home environment, always taking into account the wishes of the person with dementia as much as possible.
For many people, in-home care can provide peace of mind support and assistance with personal care tasks that can be emotionally and physically challenging, in the earlier stages of dementia-related disorders and beyond. For more information on how in-home care can provide respite for family caregivers, visit our article here.
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