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Sure Signs You Have Dementia, According to Brain Experts

Brain experts explain what to know about dementia and signs to watch out for. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Over 55 million people worldwide are living with dementia–a disorder that can rob you of your memory and other cognitive functions like thinking, ability to make decisions, language and more. According to the World Health Organization, "there are nearly 10 million new cases every year" and "is currently the seventh leading cause of death among all diseases and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally." Dementia is caused when damage or loss of nerve cells happen in the brain and the cells can't communicate with each other.

While the syndrome primarily affects people over 65, it's not a normal part of aging and younger people have been known to have the condition as well. In addition, it can start earlier than you think. William Nields, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of Grey Matters Precision Brain Centers, Sarasota, FL tells us, "Dementia begins long before you experience the first symptom. In fact, it's a 20-year-process that can start in your early 40s. But that's also the good news because if you make the right lifestyle choices early on, you'll have plenty of time to prevent or delay it."

There is no cure for dementia, however there are ways to help lower your risk and according to Dr. Nields, "It's actually possible to reverse it. There are at least 36 different risk factors that, together, lead to cognitive decline. We know from reliable research that if we take a multifaceted approach to treating these underlying causes, we can successfully prevent, delay and even reverse dementia." Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Dementia

good memory

Dr. James Giordano, professor of neurology biochemistry, Georgetown University Medical Center tells us, "There are a number of different types of dementia, including dementia caused by hardening of the blood vessels of the brain (vascular dementia) which is commonly seen in individuals with peripheral vascular disease and diabetes; Lewy body dementia (characterized by the presence of dense plaques primarily in the frontal lobes of the brain) which causes changes in fact, memory, emotion and behavior, Alzheimer's dementia (caused by progressive formation of tangles and plaques in brain cells of the hippocampus, end cortical areas) characterized by an initial loss of short term memory which progresses to overall changes in recollection, thought, planning and emotional stability, and Korsakoff's dementia (caused by metabolic changes in B vitamin absorption and utilization), which is characterized by memory disturbances, changes in personality, and is commonly seen in long-term alcoholics. There appears to be some genetic predisposition towards Lewy body and Alzheimer's dementia, although environmental and lifestyle factors can play a significant role in the onset and progression of all forms of dementing illness."

Hester Le Riche, CEO and founder of Tover, the healthcare technology company creating a more caring and inclusive world for people with cognitive challenges, including dementia says, "Dementia is a collective term for over 50 different types of degenerative brain diseases. It often starts with a few symptoms that are not always directly recognized, and over time, the amount and severity of the symptoms increase. It's important to understand the needs of an individual, also known as person-centered care, for those with dementia. Examples of behaviors that meet the needs of people with dementia are giving recognition, negotiating, working together, playing, accepting the other person's reality, and lastly, creating and facilitating a safe environment."


Lifestyle Changes That Can Lower the Risk of Dementia

mature couple jogging outdoors

According to Dr. Giordano, "In general, maintaining good cardiovascular health, and reducing lifestyle risk factors (such as a high fat, high sugar diet, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, sedentary lifestyle), can all contribute to better brain health. Additionally, engaging challenging cognitive tasks throughout the lifespan (such as learning new skills, acquiring new information, and remaining physically active) are all important for both cardiovascular and cerebral vascular health, and maintaining overall brain function." 

Le Riche says, "Up to 30% of dementia cases could be prevented if individuals started living a healthier lifestyle and taking care of themselves. At the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC22),  a study revealed that consuming more than 20% of your daily caloric intake with ultra-processed foods is associated with cognitive decline.  Findings from recent studies indicate that regular physical activity, even modest or low exertion activity such as stretching, may slow cognitive decline in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). 


Signs of Dementia

Comforting Senior Husband Suffering With Dementia

Dr. Giordano explains, "Signs of dementia include progressive change in cognitive abilities, such as memory, planning,  familiarity with daily tasks, unusual changes in mood, disturbances of sleep, and increased frustration. Most forms of dementia involve an initial decrement in short term memory, followed by increasing memory loss, with long-term memories remaining relatively intact, at least for the first few years of the disorder. Patients may become easily frustrated, highly emotional, and may become agitated or lethargic. However it is important to note that simple forgetfulness, mild absent mindedness (that), periodic changes in mood, and  alterations in sleep pattern or not immediate causes for concern. But should these signs and symptoms become more persistent, prevalent, or severe, it may be prudent to seek medical attention and advice."

According to Le Riche, "Signs of dementia vary from person to person. Common symptoms include recurring issues with memory, behavioral problems, and changes in character. For example, an individual may experience apathy, losing the ability to take initiative. This has an enormous effect on a person's physical and emotional wellbeing. Another sign of dementia is having trouble writing, reading, and speaking. An individual in the early stages of dementia may struggle coming up with the correct word to use in a conversation or not understand what another person is saying."


Why Dementia is Common

Woman comforting anxious husband

Dr. Giordano says, "It is difficult to actually state whether dementia is becoming more common, or more commonly recognized. Surely, average lifespans are increasing, and with an increasing lifespan comes the increasing possibility of age related cognitive changes, including progressive dementing illness. As well, individuals are living longer with a number of chronic diseases (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc.), Which can contribute to changes in brain function that may act with genetic and other environmental factors to induce dementing illness."

Le Riche shares, "Both genetics and lifestyle choices cause dementia. Certain types of dementia, for instance, frontotemporal dementia, is more likely to be hereditary than Alzheimer's. Engaging in unhealthy behaviors like drinking, smoking, and not getting enough exercise are all risk factors for developing dementia."


Advice for Caretakers

older man with dementia talking to doctor
Shutterstock / Robert Kneschke

Dr. Giordano explains, "Many patients with dementia become easily confused, anxious, and agitated as a consequence of their cognitive frustration and behavioral and abilities. They may wander, become easily distracted, lost, and forgetful of interpersonal relationships and skills. Further, many patients with dementia experience "sundown syndrome, whereby they will become somewhat more actively agitated in the late afternoon and early evening (most likely due to a change in their overall systemic and cerebral metabolism as a result of metabolic effects induced by circadian rhythms). Caregivers should be patient, and open minded to changes in thought, emotion, and behavioral patterns that reflect individual variations in both physiology and disease in their patients and those in their care."

Le Riche says, "When caring for someone with dementia, it's essential to understand that apathy is the most significant barrier to living a high quality of life. Sitting still all day and not interacting with others or engaging in physical activity negatively impacts joints, muscles, and even the brain. When you do nothing all day, the brain deteriorates even faster. Humans have a primal need to belong to a group. Whether a loved one is in a long-term memory care facility or still lives at home, providing opportunities to engage with others is essential. If nursing homes or caregivers create positive opportunities for the patient to engage with others, it will profoundly impact their emotional wellness.

If the difficult decision comes to putting a loved one into a long-term care facility, it's important to choose the right one. Look at the design of the building, and see if there is access to activities or technology that will provide opportunities for residents to interact with each other. I have found that when residents are introduced to purposeful play through technology while in a care facility, it greatly improves their overall quality of life."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather