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October 8, 2023

Understanding Dementia: The Top 3 Causes

Brigid A. McGuire, MA, PLPC, NCC, CRC

Dementia is defined as memory loss symptoms caused by a certain disease or condition, and is not part of the normal aging process. While normal aging is marked by challenges such as temporarily forgetting names or where you left your keys, forgetting why you entered a room, or occasionally struggling to find the right word, dementia is an umbrella term describing a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.  There are over one hundred different types of dementia.

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for sixty to eighty percent of dementia-related cases. It is a progressive and irreversible disease. Alzheimer’s Disease is marked by difficulty remembering new information, disorientation, mood changes, behavior changes, increased difficulty regarding time, events, and places, as well as delusions or suspicions related to family, friends, and caregivers that are untrue or inaccurate. There are many factors that impact the chances of acquiring Alzheimer’s Disease, such as age, genetics, family history, and heart health. By eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining good cholesterol and blood pressure, remaining socially active, avoiding smoking, limiting stress, and getting enough sleep, you are keeping your heart and brain healthy. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, although there are FDA-approved treatments, including hopeful new treatments only recently approved for use.

The second-most common form of dementia is Vascular Dementia, accounting for 5%-10% of cases. Vascular Dementia is marked by inadequate blood flow to the brain, which causes cell death throughout the body, but especially the brain. The effects of Vascular Dementia depend on how severe the blood vessels have been damaged and what part of the brain has been affected. There are many common symptoms of Vascular Dementia, including: confusion, disorientation, trouble speaking, trouble understanding speech, stroke symptoms such as a sudden headache, difficulty walking, poor balance, and numbness or paralysis to one side of the face or body. Many of the same risk factors and protective factors for Alzheimer’s Disease apply to Vascular Dementia as well, including cardiovascular health.  There are currently no FDA-approved treatments for Vascular Dementia, however preventing and treating underlying cardiovascular conditions can increase an individual’s protection. 

The third most common form of dementia is Dementia with Lewy Bodies (also referred to as “Lewy Body Dementia”). Dementia with Lewy Bodies causes a decline in thinking, reasoning, and independent function, as well as changes in attention and alertness, visual hallucinations which recur, disruption to REM sleep, which may cause reenactments of dreams physically and vocally, slow movements, tremors, and muscle rigidity. Additionally, individuals who have been diagnosed with Dementia with Lewy Bodies may have difficulty interpreting visual information, and issues within the autonomic system within the body, which controls sweating, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and sexual response. Currently, the only way to diagnose Dementia with Lewy Bodies conclusively is by autopsy, however Dementia with Lewy Bodies can be diagnosed by a physician using their professional judgment. There are also no known cures or treatments to slow or stop the disease process, however there are beneficial medications that can help to treat the symptoms of Dementia with Lewy Bodies.

A diagnosis of dementia can seem overwhelming and heart breaking. You might feel like you have no one to turn to. After receiving a dementia diagnosis, finding a mental health clinician who is knowledgeable about dementia, its various types, its progression, and what to expect can help you feel less overwhelmed and help you to focus on your own mental health and being present for your loved one during this journey. It is also beneficial for a person with dementia to see a mental health clinician themselves; benefits can include improved quality of life, improved mood, and improved symptoms of dementia at times. 

Feel free to contact a therapist at WCPA who specializes in serving older individuals, including those with dementia, and their loved ones.  You can also contact your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, which provides support and resources for many types of dementia, and utilize their twenty-four hour helpline or attend one of their many support groups.  Taking these steps can help prepare you for the journey ahead and give you more time to enjoy with your loved one. 

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Brigid McGuire

Brigid A. McGuire, MA, PLPC, NCC, CRC

Brigid A. McGuire, MA, PLPC, NCC, CRC, provides private therapy for individuals and facilitates groups for adults, older adults, and caregivers. She has significant experience working with older adults and their families who face a variety of issues including memory loss, depression, anxiety, grief, isolation, and end of life planning. She also provides therapy for frontline/healthcare/essential workers who worked through the pandemic, people with disabilities, and their caregivers and families.