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Coping with Dementia

Aug 17, 2007
If you or someone you know has a family member with dementia, then you know what a difficult, debilitating disorder it is. Dementia is a disorder of the nervous system that affects the ability to reason, speak, remember, and move. In some cases, this condition grows worse over time and cannot be cured. Other types can be treated and reversed.

What are the causes of dementia?

The most common causes of dementia are diseases such as the following:

(1) Alzheimer disease - A loss of nerve cells in the brain affects memory and other mental functions. This disease is progressive, and the exact cause is unknown. Ten percent of Americans over the age of 65 have Alzheimer, and the percentage increases to nearly half for those 85 and older.

(2) Parkinson disease - This disorder affects physical movement, and symptoms include tremors, speech impairment, and a shuffling gait. In later stages, some people develop dementia.

(3) Lewy body dementia - This form of dementia occurs when abnormal round structures, called Lewy bodies, develop in the cells of the midbrain. This condition shares characteristics of both Alzheimer's and Parkinson disease.

(4) Vascular dementia - This form of dementia occurs when arteries to the brain become narrow or blocked. This type often occurs after a stroke. The symptoms may appear abruptly or progress slowly over time. Vascular dementia may be prevented by treating the underlying diseases, such as high blood pressure.

(5) Huntington disease - This hereditary disorder begins with mild personality changes, but in later stages it can develop into dementia.
Other conditions can cause dementia or dementia-like symptoms, including severe nutritional deficiencies, emotional problems, infections of the brain such as meningitis, reactions to some medications, and metabolic abnormalities such as decreased thyroid function or hypoglycemia, a lack of sufficient sugar in the bloodstream. Some are reversible with treatment.

Can you prevent dementia?

You can prevent some forms of dementia, such as dementia due to a vitamin B-1 deficiency, by ensuring that you eat a nutritious, balanced diet. You may also be able to prevent vascular dementia by taking good care of your heart with the help of your physician. And if you are diabetic, controlling your diabetes is critical. In many cases, though, there is no sure-fire way to prevent dementia.

A recent study at the Mayo clinic indicates that people who do not have psychiatric problems but who score very high on a personality test's pessimism scale have a 30 percent increased risk of developing dementia several decades later. The same holds true for those people who score very high on the depression scale of personality test. For people who score high in both anxiety and pessimism, the risk of developing dementia later in life rises to 40 percent or more. So developing a positive attitude and getting help if you suffer from depression may be helpful.

Doctors also recommend keeping your mind sharp by reading, writing stories, playing games, or starting a new hobby. Staying connected with friends and family also helps stimulate your memory and mental processes.

How to cope with dementia?

If you are providing care for someone with dementia, it is important to honor and recognize your own feelings of frustration and helplessness. However, when you feel frustrated, it is also important that you learn to express that feeling appropriately and ask for help when you need it. You must also take care of yourself and make time for yourself. Seek outside support to help you through the process.

Even if you are not the primary caregiver for someone with dementia, trying to communicate with them can still be a frustrating experience. Patients with dementia understand what you say in the context of their own world. Trying to convince them that their world is incorrect or "not real" can make matters worse. Instead, it helps to remain calm and be sensitive to what they perceive to be reality.
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