All About Dementia: Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors Diagnosis and Prevention

May 9, 2024

Article by Hearing Partners, contributed by Mandy Mak, Clinical Audiologist at Hearing Partners

Dementia is a condition that encompasses a wide range of symptoms affecting memory, cognitive abilities and social interactions. Possible symptoms include memory loss, impaired decision-making, confusion and behavioural changes.

Although more prevalent in the elderly, dementia is not an inevitable part of the ageing process. It occurs due to a gradual decline in brain function.

This article will delve into the symptoms, causes, risk factors and diagnosis of dementia. Furthermore, it’ll cover how to manage and reduce the risk of dementia, and the answers to some of the common questions related to dementia.

Symptoms of Dementia

The symptoms of dementia can vary based on the underlying cause and different people may experience different symptoms. The symptoms can generally be categorised into cognitive and psychological changes.

Cognitive changes

Cognitive changes refer to changes in how individuals perceive, reason, solve problems and retain information. In individuals with dementia, these changes may manifest as the following:

  • Losing or forgetting things
  • Difficulty recalling recent or past events
  • Difficulty in reasoning and problem-solving
  • Difficulty communicating with others or finding the right words to express yourself
  • Impaired spatial perception
  • Disorientation about time and place
  • Poor control of movements

These changes can all result in difficulties performing daily tasks.

Psychological changes

Woman feeling sad and depressed

Psychological changes involve changes in one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviours. For those with dementia, these changes may appear as:

  • Changes in their personality
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Inappropriate behaviour
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia

Causes of Dementia

Dementia arises from damage or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain. The majority of dementia causes are irreversible. The 5 common causes include:

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. While its exact cause isn’t fully known, some cases may be linked to genetic changes that can be inherited.

In Alzheimer’s, the brain develops clumps called plaques and tangles. These clumps harm brain cells and their connections, leading to dementia.

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia results from damage to the blood vessels supplying the brain. Common causes of this condition include high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms and strokes.

The symptoms of vascular dementia such as difficulties in problem-solving, slower thinking and challenges in maintaining focus and organisation are often more prominent than memory loss.

Lewy body dementia

Lewy bodies are protein clumps found in parts of the brain controlling thinking, memory and movement. Symptoms of Lewy body dementia include experiencing vivid dreams during sleep, visual hallucinations and difficulties in maintaining focus and attention.

Individuals suffering from Lewy body dementia may also experience symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease, such as uncoordinated or sluggish movements, tremors and stiffness.

Frontotemporal dementia

Frontotemporal dementia involves the degeneration of nerve cells and connections in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. As these parts of the brain control an individual’s personality, behaviour and language, the symptoms of this type of dementia are often linked to changes in these aspects.

Parkinson’s disease

In Parkinson’s disease, Lewy bodies are also present in the brain. This condition leads to involuntary movements like shaking, stiffness and trouble with balance and coordination. Over time, many individuals with Parkinson’s disease experience dementia symptoms. This is known as Parkinson’s disease dementia.

Risk Factors for Dementia

Risk Factors For Dementia chart diagram

Image credit: The Lancet Commission

Several factors can contribute to dementia over time. While factors like age and family history are beyond our control, addressing potentially modifiable factors such as hearing loss, smoking and depression can help reduce the risk.

Hearing loss

A Man and woman having difficulty talking with each other due to hearing loss

Hearing loss is a significant modifiable risk factor for dementia (8%), according to The Lancet Commission. These individuals face challenges in communicating with others because of their hearing loss, which can result in a great deal of stress, potentially causing them to withdraw from social interactions.

As a result, this withdrawal can lead to social isolation, which is another risk factor for dementia (4%), and a decrease in cognitive stimulation. Over time, this can lead to dementia. In fact, it has been observed that the degree of hearing loss correlates with the likelihood of developing dementia:

  • Mild hearing loss: 2 times the risk
  • Moderate hearing loss: 3 times the risk
  • Severe hearing loss: Up to 5 times the risk

Prevent dementia by assessing your hearing health

Addressing hearing loss promptly can potentially delay or prevent 1 in 13 cases of dementia. Take the first step towards lowering your chances of developing dementia by getting your hearing checked. Book your appointment to take a hearing test today!

Smoking

Smoking increases the risk of vascular issues, which are associated with both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Moreover, the toxins in cigarette smoke lead to cell inflammation and stress, which are factors linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Depression

Late-life depression, while not fully understood, could potentially signal the onset of dementia.

Traumatic brain injury

According to various studies, individuals aged 50 and above who have suffered from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is even higher in individuals who have experienced multiple or severe TBIs. Research suggests that the greatest risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease occurs within the first 6 months to 2 years following a TBI.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors, such as air pollution, have been associated with a higher risk of dementia. Exposure to pollutants like traffic exhaust and burning wood can accelerate the degeneration of the nervous system, potentially leading to cognitive impairment and dementia.

Cardiovascular diseases

Cardiovascular diseases including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are also known risk factors for dementia. These diseases can impact brain health and increase the likelihood of developing cognitive decline.

Other lifestyle factors

Lifestyle factors like diet, sleep, exercise and alcohol consumption can increase the risk of dementia. Low levels of essential nutrients like vitamin D, B-6 and B-12 are associated with an increased risk of dementia, as well as sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.

Diagnosing Dementia

Blood test results

Dementia can be diagnosed in several ways. The process usually begins with a consultation with a neurologist, followed by assessments like cognitive and language tests, blood tests, imaging scans, and Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) tests.

How to Manage Dementia

While certain causes of dementia can be reversed, it is important to note that there is currently no known cure for prevalent causes like Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Medications are, however, used to manage the symptoms associated with these conditions.

In addition to medications, various care facilities, behavioural therapies, counselling services and educational resources are available to improve the quality of care for patients and their families.

How to Prevent Dementia

Although dementia cannot be prevented, some practices can help reduce the risk of developing this condition.

Monitor your hearing health

Individuals who suffer from hearing loss are at a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Early intervention for hearing loss through hearing aids or other hearing devices could reduce this risk.

In general, we recommend all adults aged 40 years and older to have their hearing evaluated annually, regardless of whether they’re experiencing symptoms of hearing loss. Adults below 40 can take a hearing test every 5 years.

If hearing loss is detected, it’s crucial to pursue appropriate treatment to prevent social isolation and dementia.

Do you suspect that you or a loved one may be suffering from hearing loss?

Early intervention is key to reducing the risk of social isolation and dementia. If you or your loved one has a hearing problem, take a hearing test at one of our clinics as soon as possible.

Stay physically and mentally active

Engaging regularly in physical and mentally stimulating activities can slow the progression of dementia. We recommend at least 150 minutes of physical exercise per week. Additionally, try reading, solving puzzles and engaging in word games to stimulate the brain.

Engage in social activities

Participating in social activities can effectively combat feelings of loneliness and social isolation, ultimately reducing the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

Quit smoking

Research has shown that middle-aged smokers (and older) may face an elevated risk of developing dementia and vascular conditions. Quitting smoking can potentially lower this risk and lead to improvements in overall health.

Consume a healthy diet

Consuming foods rich in essential nutrients such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting the intake of fats and refined sugars may help lower the chances of developing dementia.

Seek treatment for your health conditions

Managing health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity can help reduce the risk of dementia. Additionally, seeking support for anxiety and depression is also essential in delaying or preventing the onset of this condition.

Dementia can affect your memory, cognitive function and ability to perform daily tasks. As the condition progresses, you may struggle to identify familiar faces, including those of family members.

Taking proactive steps to manage risk factors associated with dementia is essential for lowering the likelihood of developing this condition. Therefore, prioritising both your physical and mental well-being is crucial in maintaining overall health and cognitive function.

Suspect you might have hearing loss?

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Speak to our hearing care professionals regarding your concerns today.

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