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The National Institute of Aging defines dementia as the “loss of cognitive functioning – thinking, remembering and reasoning – to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.” Dementia is an umbrella term to describe the group of symptoms. There are over 100 types of identified dementias. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. Other types of dementia include frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, and Lewy bodies. It is not uncommon for people to have a combination of two or more types of dementia. When speaking with a doctor, it is important to disclose a complete medical history so the correct diagnosis can be made.
“Dementia is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain” according to the Mayo Clinic. Alzheimer’s patients have clumps or protein called beta-amyloid and fibrous tangles made up of tau protein in the brain. Frontotemporal dementia is a breakdown of nerve cells and their connections in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Vascular dementia is caused by damage to the vessels that supply blood to the brain. Lewy bodies are abnormal buildups of protein in the cortex of the brain.
The Center of Disease Control identifies five factors that can increase the risk of dementia. The most common factor is age, with those over the age of 65 most affected. Those with a family history are also more likely to develop dementia. There is a higher rate of dementia in older African American and Hispanic people. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking have all been shown to increase the risk. Finally, traumatic head injuries, especially severe or repeated injuries, can also increase the risk of dementia.
Fear Feeds Stigma
The word dementia is from the Latin dementia which literally means “madness, insanity”. No wonder there is so much stigma around the word. The stigma of dementia is detrimental to the person living with the disease and their caregivers, as well as to the advancement of science to treat and hopefully, one day, cure this disease. Stigma stops people from acknowledging their symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis. Early diagnosis is key to starting treatments. And there are treatments that have been shown to slow the progression of dementia including medication, exercise and therapies. Stigma prevents people from talking openly with friends and family; this isolates them from the people who can provide support and social interaction (which can make a positive impact on the quality of life for the person living with dementia and their caregivers). These interactions also help break down the misconceptions one might have about a person living with dementia, especially in the early stages. Fear feeds stigma. The more we can address the fear, the more we can break down the stigma.
For more resources on dementia, visit The Alzheimer’s Association or call their 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900.
Cat McGaffigan, Director of Independent Living & Supportive Services
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