Understanding and coping with a dementia diagnosis can be overwhelming, but you’re not alone. This group of conditions that affect the brain is common — nearly 50 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with a form of dementia, according to the World Health Organization.
Learn the causes and risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, as well as common signs and symptoms to track. Plus, find out what to expect after a diagnosis, as well as resources to help you care for your aging loved one.
Dementia is a general term for a decline in cognitive function. People with dementia may have problems with memory, language, thinking, problem solving, and other functions that affect daily living.
Dementia isn’t a normal part of aging — it’s a group of disorders caused by abnormal brain changes. These changes lead to cognitive decline, which can be severe enough to impede independent life, affect behaviors, and alter feelings or relationships.
Diseases that damage brain cells cause dementia. This damage interferes with the cells’ ability to communicate effectively. Behavior, thoughts, and feelings can be affected by this disconnect.
Different regions of the brain are responsible for different functions. When brain cells in a particular region become damaged, that section of the brain can’t carry out its usual functions.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for up to 80% of cases in seniors. Alzheimer’s progressively damages brain cells in the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning — hindering someone’s memory and their ability to think and carry out even basic daily living tasks in later stages of the disease. Alzheimer’s is caused by plaques and tangles in the brain that damage brain cells and the fibers that connect them.
Older adults and people who have a family history of dementia are at increased risk. Age is the main risk factor for dementia and specifically Alzheimer’s disease. The risk of dementia increases with age and doubles every 10 years after age 60. In fact, nearly 85% of dementia cases occur in people 75 or older.
Family history is another key risk factor for dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia. The risk doubles for people with a parent diagnosed with dementia before the age of 80.
However, researchers now believe other factors increase the risk of dementia, and there are things you can do to help influence them. These factors include:
People with dementia rarely complain of memory loss or other problems associated with cognitive impairment. It’s much more common for family members and friends to notice signs and symptoms of dementia before their loved one does.
Learning to spot dementia symptoms early can make a huge difference in your aging relative’s future care. If you notice new or unusual behaviors, use your phone or a journal to keep track of patterns and severity. Schedule an appointment to discuss changes with your loved one’s physician.
Some warning signs of dementia include:
There isn’t a single test to conclusively diagnose cognitive decline, because we aren’t aware of everything to know about dementia. Since a medical diagnosis can take time, it’s important to reach out to a doctor as soon as you begin to notice common dementia symptoms.
Geriatricians take note of warning signs during regularly scheduled physical appointments and may perform a brief mental status exam. Some red flags that Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia may be a concern include:
In the office, your parent’s doctor can perform a short, easily reproducible mental status exam. This provides a reliable baseline to track memory loss over time. The exercise measures short-term recall, spatial reasoning, and concentration, and may test a senior’s ability to:
If the primary care doctor suspects memory problems after administering the test, they may refer your relative to a neurologist, radiologist, or another specialist for further analysis and a specific diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia.
Pursuing a dementia diagnosis can be scary — nobody wants to admit that cognitive decline may be affecting an aging loved one. But seeing a doctor as soon as possible is important to rule out other possibilities. Many treatable conditions, like thyroid issues, nutritional deficiencies, and infections can also cause memory loss. Plus, an official dementia diagnosis can be vital for future treatment and discussion of when it’s time for memory care.
A dementia diagnosis is life-changing. And while doctors can provide some idea of what to expect, it’s important to remember that the disease affects everyone differently. Some older adults can live for years with mild-to-moderate dementia, but symptoms may progress more rapidly, leading to new behavioral concerns and changing care needs.
Taking the time to come to terms with the diagnosis is important for both the person with dementia and their caregivers. You’ll be a major support system throughout the course of your loved one’s disease.
Open communication and patience can provide reassurance that the person with the disease doesn’t have to face their diagnosis alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. They recommend:
Conversations about the future can be hard, but it’s better to have them sooner rather than later. Take the time to sit down as a family and discuss your loved one’s wishes. Look over this guide to elder care planning and family meetings to prepare for your conversation.
You don’t have to go through the diagnosis alone, and neither does your loved one. As you support someone with dementia, it’s important to establish a network of trusted friends, family, or other contacts to help you avoid caregiver burnout.
Dementia is progressive, meaning cognitive decline worsens over time. Health care providers use the Global Deterioration Scale (GDS), or the Reisberg Scale, to determine a timeline of dementia symptoms for elderly patients. Caregivers can review the GDS for insight into the progression between early, middle, and late-stage dementia.
The 7 stages of dementia begin with normal aging, and progress through severe cognitive decline. At stage 5, most people can’t survive without assistance. Dementia is most commonly diagnosed at stage 3.
Nearly 90% of seniors want to age in place as long as possible, according to an AARP survey. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can complicate these plans. Some older adults can age at home with dementia successfully for years or even decades, relying on family caregivers for support. However, it’s important to keep in mind that dementia is unpredictable, and care needs can change suddenly.
Before choosing to move an aging loved one into your home, carefully consider whether you can offer the resources necessary to keep them safe, stimulated, and healthy.
Memory care communities provide specialized housing and 24-hour care for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Many families choose memory care for their elderly loved ones, since communities are tailored to the specific needs of people experiencing cognitive decline. Key services and features that make memory care facilities different from other types of senior housing include round-the-clock care, specialized staff training, memory-enhancing therapies, a secure environment, and more.
Memory care communities are equipped to help seniors experiencing challenges that often accompany mid-to-late-stage dementia. Staff are specially trained to address these common dementia behaviors while supporting residents’ safety and well-being.
As dementia progresses, your loved one’s care needs will likely change, making it more difficult to support them without professional help. Whether you need respite care for a short period of time, or are looking for permanent support or round-the-clock medical assistance, find a senior care option that best fits your family’s needs.
Respite care, or short-term care, is a temporary solution that allows family caregivers to spend time with relatives and friends, travel for work, or even take a much-needed vacation to prevent the potentially serious mental and physical health consequences of full-time dementia caregiving. Respite care may be offered by community centers, religious organizations, or senior living facilities, and generally lasts between one day and several weeks.
In-home care services don’t offer the same structure or amenities as memory care, but can be an ideal solution for seniors set on aging in place. In-home care agencies may offer different levels of support depending on your relative’s needs. Be sure the care aide has experience working with seniors with dementia, and have a list of your loved one’s symptoms available to share. Some benefits of in-home care for dementia include:
Nursing homes often cater to seniors with significant, debilitating conditions or health concerns. A doctor must prescribe this type of care, and will often require a skills assessment, as well as a physical examination. Nursing homes don’t provide the same resources as memory care, and aren’t designed specifically for seniors with dementia. Because of a higher resident-to-staff ratio, nursing homes aren’t ideal for aging adults with mild to moderate cognitive decline, unless they require round-the-clock health care as well.
Learn expert communication strategies to connect with your relative as their dementia progresses.
Look up help near you using the Alzheimer’s Association’s local resource database.
The Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center offers information about research and clinical trials, as well as potential treatments and patient care. You can also reach ADEAR by phone at 1-800-438-4380.
For publications, educational material, and information about local services, you can reach The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America online or by phone at 1-866-232-8484.
Discuss your family’s needs and find out what type of care is best for your aging loved one with one of our free, local Senior Living Advisors.