As caregivers, it can be terrifying to imagine our loved ones
forgetting cherished memories or being unable to recognize those
closest to them. But the possibility of older-age
dementia is one we can't afford to forget.
According to the CDC, at least 25% of caregivers for adults over
age 50 are looking after someone with cognitive impairment or
dementia. This is a sobering statistic, but there is hope,
too--learning about the underlying causes of dementia can help
caregivers stay alert to the signs of illness and ensure that their
older loved ones have the care they need in their golden years.
Genetic Causes of Dementia
Often, we wonder what we could have done differently to prevent
the onset of senior memory loss. But it's important to remember
that dementia can be influenced by innate factors we have little or
no control over. Some of the most common types of dementia are
linked with diseases or conditions that have a genetic component.
Recent studies, for instance, indicate that there are genetic risk
factors for developing Alzheimer's
disease, a condition which causes a slow decline in
Other causes of dementia which have been linked to genetics
include Huntington's disease, Lewy body disease and frontotemporal
dementia, also known as Pick's disease. However, it is important to
remember that our genes don't cause dementia; they merely increase
the risk of developing a dementia-causing condition.
Head Trauma Links to Dementia
Various physical traumas like brain injury, tumors, oxygen
deprivation or exposure to heavy metals can also cause dementia.
Dementia pugilistica, or boxer's dementia, is caused by repetitive
trauma to the head, while post-traumatic dementia occurs after a
single incident of brain injury. The dementia itself can be caused
either by direct tissue damage or by swelling, infection or fluid
Here's the good news: in some of these cases, the course of
mental decline can be stopped or even reversed if the problems are
addressed soon enough. Caregivers can help their loved ones by
being aware of the physical causes of dementia and getting help as
soon as possible if there has been an accident or injury. Also,
assisted living can be a great way to prevent environmental hazards
while also maintaining seniors' dignity and independence.
Disease Causes of Dementia
Besides the widely-known risk of cognitive decline associated
with Alzheimer's disease, there are several other diseases which
can cause dementia.
Brain disease causes the vast majority of dementia cases, and
its repercussions are far more serious. The damage from these
diseases results in the destruction of brain cells integral to
language, reasoning, memory, and emotion, and produces the symptoms
of dementia (please see above). Most dementia cases come from four
different conditions, each with its own unique issues:
- Alzheimer's disease (AD). This is the most
common type, accounting for up to 2/3rds of all cases, and the
precise cause is unknown. Clumps and tangles of proteins develop
among brain cells, interfering with their functioning and
eventually destroying them. This usually begins in the memory and
reasoning centers of the brain and then eventually progresses to
include the entire cerebral cortex (the "thinking" part of the
brain). At present, this type of dementia is irreversible.
- Lewy body dementia (LBD). Lewy bodies are
round protein structures that develop among brain cells, displacing
them and disrupting their functioning. The precise cause of why
they develop is unknown. Depending upon whom you ask, LBD is
increasingly considered the second leading cause of dementia, from
20% to 35% of all cases, but it is still considered a very new,
relatively unknown classification.
- Vascular dementia, also known as multi infarct
dementia. Brain damage from narrowed or blocked arteries
causes this condition, usually as a result of stroke.
Although the damage is irreversible, proper treatment of the
underlying disease which caused the stroke (such as high blood
pressure) can halt the further progression of vascular dementia.
The symptoms of this dementia will vary according to which parts of
the brain were affected by the stroke. Vascular dementia was once
considered the second leading cause of dementia, but has now been
overtaken by LBD.
- Frontotemporal dementia. In this form of
dementia the brain's frontal lobes gradually degenerate, affecting
a person's judgment and social behavior and appearing to change his
personality. While the disease is only a distant fourth in
prevalence of overall dementia cases, it is the second leading
cause of dementia in people who are younger than the age of
There are several other brain disorders that cause dementia,
though with much less frequency than those listed above. These
include Huntington's disease (a genetic disorder characterized by
abnormal jerky body movements),
Parkinson's disease (characterized by limb stiffness and
stooped posture, tremor, speech impairment, and a shuffling gait),
and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a transmissible disease of which the
human form of mad cow disease is the latest example). In addition,
some infections (such as meningitis, syphilis, and even AIDS) have
been known to cause dementia.
Other possible causes include:
- HIV, leukemia, meningitis, and other diseases that compromise
the immune system
- Thyroid disease
- Liver cirrhosis
- Endocrine disorders such as Addison's disease or Cushing's
Stroke and Dementia
Dementia may also stem from strokes
and other conditions that damage blood vessels and prevent
necessary oxygen and nutrients from reaching the brain. Called
vascular dementia, this type of impairment may or may not be
reversible, and often coexists with Alzheimer's disease.
Because this is the second most common cause of dementia,
caregivers should be alert to the signs of stroke and other risk
factors for vascular dementia, including diabetes
blood pressure. Seniors can also help ward off vascular
dementia by maintaining a healthy heart through proper diet and
Other Causes and Risk Factors
Some causes of dementia arise from conditions that are
ultimately treatable. Poisoning, medication reactions, vitamin
deficiencies, nutritional disorders and even chronic lung problems
can cause temporary dementia. Keeping track of seniors' overall
health is key to preventing and treating such conditions. We can
also help our loved ones by paying attention to risk factors that
may increase the likelihood of dementia, such as alcohol abuse,
high cholesterol and even depression.
Though it may seem daunting, caregivers who are vigilant about
signs of dementia are on the right path to providing relief for
those under their care. Even if cognitive decline is unavoidable,
understanding the underlying causes of dementia is an important
first step to providing effective and timely support to our loved
Dementia care offers catered memory care services, attention and
medication mangement, often in a secure assisted living or nursing home setting. Often in later
stages of dementia, it's too difficult for a family to take care of
their loved ones as they need more specialized, expert care from
trained professionals. Learn more about memory and dementia care.
- Mayo Clinic, 2010-2012
- National Institute on Aging, 2012
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009
- Medline Plus, 2011
- WebMD, 2005-2012