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Dementia: What Are Its Symptoms and Causes?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

elder woman with dementia

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dementia is an umbrella term for symptoms that trigger loss of cognitive abilities and behavioral function
  • Signs of dementia include memory loss, impaired sense of judgment and reduced ability to solve problems. Dementia is classified into multiple types and can progress in stages
  • While your doctor may recommend certain medications to alleviate dementia symptoms, you may want to consider different natural therapies instead
  • Consuming a diet mainly composed of high-quality omega-3 fats, exercising more and avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol may help you reduce your dementia risk

Dementia, or major neurocognitive disorder, is not a disease,1 but a group of symptoms wherein “loss of cognitive function … and behavioral abilities” is present, according to the National Institute of Aging (NIA).2 Dementia can affect multiple areas of the brain, with symptoms that can differ among people.3

If you want to learn how it develops, what its common types are and how you can lower your risk for early signs of dementia, keep on reading this guide.

What Is Dementia?

As you age and navigate your way through your golden years, you may find yourself struggling with health issues that can impact your quality of life, such as memory loss. While a slight memory loss is usually just a normal part of aging and not a serious issue, In some instances it can be an indicator of dementia.

People with dementia not only experience problems related to memory, problem solving, ability to focus and pay attention, self-management, communication, reasoning and judgment, and visual perception4,5 (meaning they’re unable to process and interpret what they see6 ). They may also experience personality changes and have difficulties controlling their emotions,7 feeling empathy, socializing and interacting with other people.8

Yearly, there are 10 million new dementia cases recorded worldwide.9 A study published in 2018 revealed that, globally, dementia affected 43.8 million people and caused 2.4 million deaths in the year 2016 alone. Women were more affected compared to men.10

What’s concerning is that dementia can cause more than just memory loss, since it may affect other aspects of brain health and function.

Be Aware of These Early Dementia Symptoms

The signs of dementia manifest when there’s a loss of function in your brain’s neurons or nerve cells. After these cells cease to work, they are disconnected from a network of other brain cells and eventually die.11 Dementia symptoms that can affect your health are cognitive and psychological in nature, and include:12,13

  • Memory loss observed by someone else
  • Communication and speech problems
  • Instances of confusion and disorientation
  • Difficulties performing complex jobs, reasoning, problem solving, planning and organizing
  • Impairments to motor function and coordination
  • Tendency to be repetitive
  • Decline in visual abilities
  • Personality and mood changes
  • Mental health problems like anxiety and depression
  • Development of inappropriate behavior
  • Paranoia and agitation
  • Cases of hallucinations
  • Increased apathy
  • Inability to adapt to changes

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Dementia Versus Alzheimer’s Disease: What’s the Difference?

Alzheimer’s disease is another major health problem also characterized by increased memory loss. However, the terms dementia and Alzheimer’s disease shouldn’t be interchanged because there are differences between them. As mentioned in a previous section, dementia isn’t exactly a disease, but is “an umbrella term”14 for health problems that trigger negative changes to cognitive function.15

Alzheimer’s disease is considered the most common dementia type,16 characterized by a reduction in total brain size, damage to nerve cells and loss of their connections to each other.17 Researchers believe that the main reason for the development of Alzheimer’s disease is the presence of amyloid plaques (caused by particles of the beta-amyloid protein) and neurofibrillary tangles (another protein) in the brain.18,19,20

What Are the Different Types of Dementia?

Apart from Alzheimer’s disease, other types of dementia include:

Vascular dementia — Considered the second most common type of dementia, this form is characterized by insufficient blood flow to your brain. It occurs due to blood vessel damage or the presence of blockages that cause “mini-strokes or brain bleeding.”21

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) — This occurs when nerve cell loss is present in your frontal and temporal lobes,22 located on the front and side areas of the brain.23

Lewy body dementia — This is a progressive dementia wherein Lewy bodies or abnormal bunches of proteins appear in your brain’s nerve cells, particularly in areas that promote optimal thinking, memory and movement.24

Younger-onset or early-onset dementia25 You can be diagnosed with younger-onset or early-onset dementia if signs appear before you turn 65 years old.26

Mixed dementia — If more than one type of dementia is responsible for negative brain changes, this can mean that you’re suffering from mixed dementia.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) — This rare type of dementia occurs because of the abnormal folding of multiple proteins called prions, resulting in brain cell damage and cognitive decline. Cases of CJD can develop with no known cause, and can be hereditary or even transmitted from cattle to people in some instances.27

Parkinson’s dementia — This manifests at least a year after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.28 People with Parkinson’s dementia struggle with gradually worsening mobility problems29 and symptoms that can severely impact their brain function and memory.30

Alcohol-related dementiaAs its name implies, this condition can arise because of excessive alcohol consumption.31

Stages of Dementia

Dementia can progress into more severe stages if it’s not tackled immediately. How quickly it can affect you will depend on factors like genetics, age, possible cause of dementia and your health status. Medical News Today highlights the four potential dementia stages:32

Mild cognitive impairment — At its early stage, dementia can be characterized by general forgetfulness.

Mild dementia — When you have mild dementia, you may experience negative changes to brain function, which can disrupt daily life. Memory loss, confusion, instances of getting lost and struggles with planning and executing responsibilities are common at this stage.

Moderate dementia — The symptoms of this stage are similar to that of mild dementia, albeit increased. At this point, you may require assistance in performing daily tasks and experience sleep disruptions and personality changes.

Severe dementia or late stage dementia33The symptoms are at their worst in this stage, and you may need to be assisted by a full-time caregiver. Communicating and performing simple tasks like sitting and holding your head up can be difficult, and loss of bladder control may occur.

Although these stages have their own characteristics, be aware that they can overlap. Some indicators of dementia can manifest during a particular stage and then go away, or follow a linear progression and worsen.34

What Causes Dementia?

Dementia develops when nerve cells become damaged or significantly decline in number and lose connections to other cells.35 Multiple causes of dementia symptoms have been identified, since they can occur because of various brain changes.36 These include:37,38

Neurological diseases that may worsen over time such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease

Vascular disorders that disrupt proper blood flow within your brain

Central nervous system infections like meningitis, HIV and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

Multiple sclerosis

Hydrocephalus (fluid buildup in your brain)

Subdural hematomas (accumulation of blood between your brain’s surface and its covering, the dura39)

Traumatic brain injuries due to car accidents, falls, concussions or constant head trauma

Anoxia or failure of the body or brain to receive oxygen40

Brain tumors, although this rarely happens

Thyroid problems

Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar levels

Vitamin B12 absorption problems

Excessive or insufficient levels of sodium or calcium

Deficiencies of folate and vitamins B1 (thiamin), B6, B12, D41 and E

Prolonged alcohol or drug usage

Side effects due to medicines

Dehydration

Increased exposure to heavy metals like lead and substances like pesticides

Aside from the mentioned causes, there are also other risk factors that may predispose you to dementia, namely:42

  • Family history for dementia
  • Genetics46
  • Obesity47
  • Late-life depression48
  • Down syndrome, especially when the person reaches 40 years old49

Complications Linked to Dementia

The Mayo Clinic notes that dementia can progress into these complications if it isn’t addressed right away:50

PneumoniaResearchers of a 2015 study found that dementia is one of the many risk factors for aspiration pneumonia.51 This may occur because people with dementia experience difficulties feeding themselves and swallowing their food, increasing their risk for choking.52 In some instances, they may inhale food into their lungs where particles can impede breathing and trigger pneumonia.

Poor nutrition — Appetite loss, weight loss and swallowing difficulties are common in people with dementia,53 and over time can greatly affect the quantity and quality of nutrients they consume. Authors of a 2017 study published in the BMC Geriatrics journal highlighted the need for adjustments regarding food and drink consumption among people with dementia, since they may help offset issues like weight loss, undernutrition, dehydration and cognitive decline.54

Safety issues in performing daily tasks like driving and walking — In a 2017 study published in the Canadian Family Physician journal, researchers concluded that while people diagnosed with mild dementia may be able to drive cars for a few years, those whose condition may worsen have a higher risk for motor vehicle collisions.55 Alzheimer Society Canada also warns that people with dementia who walk alone have a higher risk of being lost even if they’re in familiar surroundings.56

Reduced ability to perform self-care tasks — The NIA notes that people diagnosed with dementia may require assistance when performing daily tasks57 like taking a bath,58 getting dressed59 or relieving themselves (possibly because of incontinence60).

Higher mortality risk61Infections can lead to coma and death in late-stage dementia.62 A 2014 article in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease also pointed out that gender, medicines, age, cognitive decline and institutionalization may predispose someone with dementia to an increased risk of dying.63

How Is Dementia Diagnosed?

Before determining a dementia diagnosis, your doctor may need to check for health issues like abnormal thyroid function, normal pressure hydrocephalus or vitamin deficiency, since they can cause cognitive problems.

Your doctor may also inquire about your medical history and ask questions regarding your family history of dementia, incidence of symptoms, behavior and personality changes. Additionally, your doctor will need to know the medications you’re taking, as some can exacerbate dementia conditions. Your doctor will probably check your blood pressure levels and other vital signs too.64

Tests Used to Check for Dementia

The NIA says these tests may help determine if you have dementia or not:65

Cognitive and neuropsychological testing — You may need to undergo exams that test your mental capabilities, including your memory and problem solving, language and math skills.

Laboratory tests — This dementia test involves examining your “blood and other fluids, as well as checking levels of various chemicals, hormones, and vitamins,” so your doctor can determine whether abnormal levels of any of these indicators could be causing your dementia.

Brain scans — There are three types of brain scans used to check for dementia, namely computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). Brain scans look for possible dementia-causing strokes, tumors and health issues, and check if your brain is functioning well and structured properly.

Psychiatric evaluation — Be prepared to undergo a mental health screen for problems like depression or other psychological issues that may be causing or increasing your risk for dementia.

Genetic test — This test helps determine whether you carry a gene defect linked to dementia. Consult a genetic counselor together with your family members and your doctor before and after getting tested.

Blood tests — The National Health Service notes that blood testing can be useful in ruling out other possible causes of symptoms that manifest similarly to dementia.66

Ideal Treatments for People With Dementia

Presently, dementia has no known cure.67 However, there are treatments that can address dementia and provide care for people suffering from its symptoms. For instance, doctors may prescribe certain medications for some people with dementia to alleviate depression, irritability or sleeping difficulties.

Drugs that may be recommended include cholinesterase inhibitors, anxiolytics, antidepressants and antipsychotic medicines.68 However, because of the possible side effects linked to these medicines,69,70,71 they may not be your best course of action in easing dementia symptoms. Instead, you may want to consider alternative and holistic therapies, such as:72

Occupational therapy — According to Occupational Therapy in Health Care, occupational therapists can help in “supporting the best functioning of the person with dementia, and providing education and skills training … and support to caregivers.”73 These therapists can also discuss some aspects of dementia home care, such as ways for improving your home’s safety to avoid accidents and dealing with worsened dementia.74

Reminiscence therapy — Reminiscence therapy can be done in a group setting or one on one. It involves discussions about activities, hobbies, routines or places that someone with dementia may have experienced, enjoyed or encountered in the past.75 Music, photos or sentimental items can be used as well.76

Cognitive stimulation therapy (CST) — People diagnosed with mild to moderate dementia may benefit from CST, a form of group therapy spanning 14 sessions. Participants usually perform tasks designed to stimulate their mind and encourage them to share their insights.77

Reality orientation training — This therapy aims to provide people with dementia a better understanding of the environment they’re in by going over basic information such as the person’s name or the date and time,78 potentially promoting their self-esteem and self-control.79

How to Prevent Dementia

To lower your risk for this health problem and ensure you can enjoy what life still has to offer even as you reach your senior years, take note of these tips:80

Stop smoking — Studies have shown that smoking can predispose you to dementia.81 Stopping this bad habit may reduce your risk for this health problem.82

Exercise A 2018 study in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that people who did leisure-time physical activity lowered their risk for dementia-related mortality.83 Similarly, a meta-analysis published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that people with dementia or mild cognitive impairment who exercised exhibited better cognitive scores compared to people who were sedentary.84

Do mentally stimulating activities to engage your brain — Enjoying your hobbies for one or more hours daily may help protect against dementia later in life, according to results of a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.85

Address high blood pressure levels — Multiple studies showed that high blood pressure may play a role in the development of dementia.86,87

Get enough high-quality sleep88According to a 2019 study in the journal Science Translational Medicine, increased amounts of nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep slow wave activity (SWA) resulted in a lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia.89

Optimize your vitamin D levels — A deficiency in this all-important vitamin was proven to raise your risk for dementia90 and Alzheimer’s disease.91 Safe sun exposure is one of the best ways to ensure your body has enough vitamin D. Taking vitamin D3 supplements, while ensuring you get enough vitamin K2, calcium and magnesium, may also be helpful if you live in an area that doesn’t get much sunlight.

Refrain from drinking alcohol92 Alcohol use has been found to play a major role in the development of dementia, particularly early-onset dementia.93

Seek medical attention — The Mayo Clinic advises that you talk to your doctor if you’re struggling with health issues like hearing loss, depression or anxiety.94

Dementia Diet: What Are the Best Foods to Consume?

To help improve your brain health and protect it from dementia, here are the nutrients you should consume and their best sources:95,96

Vitamin B12 — Grass fed beef liver, wild sockeye salmon, grass fed milk, pasture-raised chicken, organic and pastured eggs and pork from heritage pigs97

Folate98Grass fed beef liver, spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and lettuce99

Vitamin E — Sunflower seeds, avocados, spinach, Swiss chard, butternut squash and beet greens100

Omega-3 fats, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — Krill oil

Choline101,102Grass fed beef liver, organic and pastured eggs, scallops and Brussels sprouts103

Acetyl-L-carnitine104Grass fed beef, raw milk and pasture-raised chicken breast105

Medium-chain triglycerides106Coconuts and coconut oil107

Probiotics108,109Raw grass fed yogurt and fermented foods like kimchi, natto and sauerkraut

The implementation of a Mediterranean diet to help reduce the risk for dementia and other brain issues has been widely recommended.110 It’s similar to a ketogenic diet, as it emphasizes consumption of high amounts of omega-3 fats111 and organically grown fruits and vegetables, moderate portions of high-quality protein and reduced quantities of sugar.

Authors of a 2018 study published in the Neurology journal suggest that a Mediterranean diet “may provide up to 3.5 years of protection against brain aging and [Alzheimer’s disease].”112

The Right Strategies Can Help Prevent Dementia

By 2030, the WHO projects that 82 million people will be diagnosed with dementia, and in 2050, it’s expected to affect 152 million people.113 Dementia not only affects the mental and physical health of the person struggling with them, but it can also be financially burdensome, taking a serious toll on others, such as families and caretakers, given the gravity of the situation.

While no definite cure for dementia has been suggested yet, there are ways you can lower your risk for this severe health issue, and by implementing them, you may be able to avoid many of the adverse complications linked to it.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Dementia

Q: What is vascular dementia?

A: Vascular dementia occurs when blood vessel damage or blockages are present in the brain, disrupting its blood supply.114

Q: What is Lewy body dementia?

A: This is a type of dementia wherein some of your brain’s nerve cells are affected by Lewy bodies or abnormal groups of proteins.115

Q: Is dementia hereditary?

A: Dementia can be genetic. Authors of a 2012 Seminars in Neurology article discovered nine possible genes that may predispose you to this condition.116

Q: Is dementia a mental illness?

A: There’s very little research suggesting that dementia can be considered a mental illness. However, what’s known about dementia is its tendency to negatively impact someone’s brain function.117

Q: How do you get dementia?

A: Dementia symptoms arise when nerve cells in your brain are damaged, decline in number and become disconnected from other cells.118 There are multiple risk factors associated with dementia, ranging from diseases and brain injuries to nutrient deficiencies and lifestyle factors.119,120

Q: Is anger a sign of dementia?

A: WebMD notes that people with dementia can oftentimes become angry for no reason, although there are instances when issues like discomfort, confusion and surrounding environments come into play.121

Q: How long can a person live with dementia?

A: A 2010 study published in BMJ noted that people who were diagnosed with dementia at 60 to 69 years old can survive for another 6.7 years. However, if the person is over 90 years old by the time of the dementia diagnosis, the “median survival” significantly drops to 1.9 years.122

Q: Is it dangerous to leave people with dementia unsupervised?

A: Since people with dementia may experience lapses in judgment, ability to discern time and places, struggles with their physical capabilities, loss of sensory abilities, and confusion, fearful or suspicious behaviors,123 leaving them unsupervised can put them at risk of dangerous and possibly life-threatening situations.124

Q: Does a person with dementia know they have it?

A: Researchers from Johns Hopkins University discovered that many older adults diagnosed with dementia weren’t aware that they have the condition. In some instances, these older adults haven’t been formally diagnosed, either.125

Q: Can you die from dementia?

A: The development of infections at late-stage dementia may increase your risk for coma126 and death.127

Q: How do you calm down someone with dementia?

A: The Alzheimer’s Association recommends the following tips to alleviate agitation in people with dementia:128

Foster a calm environment by eliminating potential stressors and triggers in surroundings.

Ensure that the person with dementia is comfortable and that their needs are met.

Make tasks as simple as possible.

Set aside time for exercise.

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