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Overview of dementia

Dementia is a condition characterized by loss of brain function and memory. It is a group of symptoms that may result from several different brain disorders. The most common types of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia. Immediate diagnosis and care have the potential to slow the progression of some symptoms.

Certain lifestyle activities may delay the onset of dementia or reduce your chances of developing the disease. The following strategies show promise:

  • Exercise. Engaging in purposeful movement each day for 30 minutes may improve brain function.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Good nutrition not only nourishes your brain, but it also helps keep your blood vessels in good condition to keep your brain oxygenated.
  • Control your blood pressure. Hypertension increases your risk of a stroke or other disruption of blood flow to the brain, which can lead to vascular dementia.
  • Protect your head from injury. Some studies link brain injury, such as concussion, to dementia.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Insomnia and sleep apnea may contribute to dementia later in life.
  • Stimulate your brain. Activities such as puzzle-solving, taking up a new hobby, or even changing the routes you drive to common destinations help your brain stay sharp.
  • Participate in social activities. Interacting with other people engages your brain and reduces your risk of cognitive decline.

Just as keeping your heart healthy can help you avoid a heart attack, keeping your brain healthy may help with avoiding dementia later in life. By engaging in a brain-healthy lifestyle, you increase your chances of staying sharp throughout your senior years.

If you have any concerns, Find a Doctor or visit a Dignity Health location to receive diagnosis and treatment for dementia in AZ, CA, and NV.

Symptoms of dementia

The signs and symptoms of dementia may vary depending on the specific type. In general, all dementias produce a range of symptoms, including:

  • Progressive memory loss
  • Inability to focus or concentrate, even for short periods of time
  • Loss of ability to solve simple problems, such as how to stop the rain from coming in the house by closing a window or how to do a word-find puzzle
  • Inability to find the right word during speech or writing or to use words correctly when speaking
  • Inability to complete tasks that require multiple steps, such as cooking or paying bills
  • Poor reasoning and logic skills
  • Personality changes, including angry outbursts or frequent episodes of crying
  • Hallucinations
  • Repeating a single word or behavior over and over
  • Sleep disturbances

Symptoms may be mild at first and progress to severe. Some types of dementia have a rapid onset, while others take a slow, gradual course. The symptoms, and their severity, vary widely among people with dementia. Symptoms tend to get worse as the disease progresses.

Causes of dementia

Dementia is not a normal consequence of aging as some people once thought. Every type of dementia is a disease process. The cause of dementia differs for each specific type. There is no single cause for these brain disorders. Many things, including increasing age, genetic differences, lifestyle habits and, in some cases, other medical conditions play a role. However, a very small number of people inherit (from their parents) a rare, defective gene that triggers Alzheimer’s much earlier than normal, often when the person is in his or her 40s.

This is called familial (hereditary) Alzheimer’s. Because the risk factors are complex and doctors are still discovering new ones, no form of dementia is entirely preventable. However, it is possible to take steps to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease relates to the buildup of a substance called tau protein and other abnormal structures in the brain. The disease disrupts normal brain cell (nerve cell) connections. The exact cause of the abnormal structures and how they change brain function is unknown. Some people have an inherited form of Alzheimer’s.

Lewy body dementia

Lewy body dementia results from the buildup of a specific brain protein into an abnormal structure called a Lewy body. Lewy bodies damage specific parts of the brain and also reduce levels of the brain chemical dopamine. Known risk factors include Parkinson’s disease and a family history of Lewy body dementia.

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia results from disrupted blood flow to brain tissue. Unlike with a stroke, vascular dementia involves poor circulation through much smaller vessels (small arterioles and capillaries). Neurologists often refer to this dementia as small vessel disease. Known risk factors include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and smoking.