When you think of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease probably leaps to mind. After all, 8 out of 10 patients with dementia do indeed present with Alzheimer’s. However, there are other types of dementia that can strike as we age, and the progression of the disease might different significantly from Alzheimer’s.
Remember that when we talk about dementia, we are talking about a physical disease of the brain. Therefore, presentation of symptoms will depend upon actual changes in the brain’s physical structure or functioning.
Alzheimer’s has been linked to an abnormal protein, which creates a plaque buildup in the brain. The disease progresses gradually, and each patient will pass through very predictable stages as they age.
Another type of dementia, called vascular dementia, originates from a different type of malfunction. The small blood vessels which feed the brain begin to plug up and become blocked, causing a reaction similar to a very small stroke. However, we are talking about microscopic blood vessels in this case, not the large ones affected by strokes. So vascular dementia can present with very few symptoms for a long time, and then a series of events in the brain can trigger a more sudden decline.
Whereas Alzheimer’s patients experience a predictable path of deterioration, vascular dementia patients can present with uneven symptoms. Language is often preserved while other functions decline. This can lead to patients expressing a desire to be independent and care for themselves, yet being physically unable to actually do so.
As you can see, the type of dementia experienced by the patient can greatly impact the type care they need. For more information on the different types of dementia, check out our video below, and give us a call if you have questions about caregiving at this stage in life.
You probably understand that heart disease is a disease of the heart. There is something physically wrong, caused by a combination of genetics, environment, and lifestyle, that damages a person’s heart and causes it to become unhealthy.
Like heart disease, dementia is also a degenerative disease. Yet, most people believe that dementia is a mental illness, like depression or anxiety. This is a common misconception, and researchers are discovering more and more how very wrong it is. Dementia is actually a disease of the brain.
Thanks to modern imaging technology, we can clearly see structural abnormalities in the brain. In the case of dementia, researchers have even been able to track the progression of the disease through a series of scans.
When a person with dementia exhibits symptoms, such as forgetfulness and confusion, you are seeing the results of changes in brain function.
Imagine that you have a piece of yarn, and you want to wind it into a ball. As you do this, you start with a very small ball that gradually becomes larger. Now picture that small, initial ball of yarn as the basic functions you learned when you were a small child. You learned how to eat, communicate through crying, and so on. Later we learn to walk, smile, feed ourselves, go to the bathroom, talk, and gradually develop more complex skills.
The progression of dementia is like unwinding that ball of yarn. At first the patient loses more complex skills, but as the disease progresses they lose more basic, life-sustaining abilities.
That idea, and more, is explained in the brief video below.
Dementia is often a difficult topic to discuss, because it’s technically a collective term that denotes symptoms of over 70 different medical conditions. Dementia refers to a set of behaviors which can show up in many elderly and chronically ill patients, making it a common scenario that we encounter. And yet, the signs and symptoms of dementia can be unique to each patient.
When you hear that your loved one has dementia, you might wonder exactly what you will encounter. You’re right to have these thoughts, because as we said, dementia can vary a great deal from one patient to another. Having said that, we do know that the most common presentation of dementia is the Alzheimer’s type.
In the vast majority of cases, Alzheimer’s follows a very predictable progression over the course of about ten years. Your loved one will progress through seven stages of the disease, starting at Stage One. In early stages, symptoms are usually mild. At Stage Six, the disease process becomes very identifiable. At this point, the patient becomes frequently confused, might become lost in their own home, and they begin to lose control of bowel and bladder functions. They are still walking around, talking and eating and often acting pretty normally, but they will gradually lose more and more functions.
By the time the patient has entered Stage Seven, they are usually within the last few months to year of their life span. We actually divide Stage Seven into stages A, B, C, and so on.
By Stage Seven C, the patient cannot make their needs known through language, and they generally cannot walk any longer. They might still be eating, smiling, and sitting up briefly, but at this point we begin to seriously consider Hospice care. We have now reached the point that the disease will only progress forward, often quite rapidly. The patient and his or her loved ones now need the supportive care provided by Hospice workers.
As a trusted member of the community, Hospice of the Valleys has been providing hospice care to the Inland Valley and Fallbrook for over 34 years. Please call us for senior community resources, or for information about hospice care. We’re here to help. 951-200-7800.