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 a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 cognition.
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 collection.
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 65.
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:
- Multiple sclerosis
- HIV, leukemia, meningitis, and other diseases that compromise the immune system
- Thyroid disease
- Diabetes-related hypoglycemia
- Liver cirrhosis
- Endocrine disorders such as Addison’s disease or Cushing’s disease
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 and high blood pressure. Seniors can also help ward off vascular dementia by maintaining a healthy heart through proper diet and exercise.
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 the warning 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 ones.
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
Update: January 2018