An increasing leading cause of death among the elderly today is dementia. Dementia is a group of brain degenerative diseases that cause memory and thought impairment. There are different types of dementia that can affect people at various stages throughout old age.
Although there is no specific known cause of dementia, many times it results from the gradual deterioration of the brain which causes a severe impact on cognitive function over time. It’s helpful to know what to expect if you care for someone with dementia.
If left unaddressed, the symptoms of dementia and the changes it causes can be overwhelming and sometimes frightening. Why exactly is dementia so fatal? How does dementia eventually kill you?
The term “dementia” includes a variety of conditions that affect the brain. People with dementia experience memory loss, behavioral changes, impairment to cognitive function, damage to the brain, and loss of emotional, mental, and physical control.
Dementia signs and symptoms progress over time. It might begin with barely noticeable memory loss or occasional forgetfulness. Eventually, later stages of dementia can include total loss of control over the physical body, inability to swallow, infections, and abnormal aggressive behavior.
As one of the most common disabilities seen in healthcare for seniors, it’s likely you know someone with the condition or at least know someone who has a loved one affected by dementia. Here are some of the signs that are likely to show up.
In the early stages of dementia, subtle signs begin to present themselves. The person might lose their keys more often, forget directions when driving, or show mood swings. It can often be overlooked and unnoticed as simple “ditziness” or having an off day.
It can be hard to diagnose dementia in the earlier stages. According to the Global Deterioration Scale (GDS or “Reisberg Scale”), dementia experts express the need for updated testing as it’s much better for the individual, caregivers, and family members to catch dementia earlier on. It can be confusing to pinpoint the onset of dementia as it often occurs with co-existing conditions, such as a stroke or physical disease.
Top traits of the early phase of dementia include:
As dementia progresses, the middle stage shows more severe signs of the beginning stage. The person will likely begin forgetting people’s names, faces, and their relationship to them. This relationship memory gap can come and go at different times, depending on the day.
They may also get easily lost in places like their local grocery store, nursing home, or even their own house. Communication can become an issue as they struggle to find the right words to express what they want to say. Major behavioral changes can occur, such as an introvert becoming suddenly extroverted and risk-seeking, or a nurturing friend becoming hostile toward peers.
It can become harder to learn new things or pick up new information. Short-term memory becomes nearly impossible to hold on to, while long-term memories begin to surface. It’s very common for someone with dementia to experience a surge of childhood memories they had long forgotten about. This happens because the brain is trying to hold onto stored information so it “fills in the gaps” that short-term memory now lacks.
Characteristics of mid-stage dementia:
When dementia has taken its toll on a person and they are nearing death, the signs and symptoms are a defining part of their everyday being. They are unable to take care of themselves and require constant supervision. The person can’t walk, feed or bathe themselves. Nor can they make decisions or communicate their most basic needs. Their body cannot control simple functions such as bowel movements, speaking, or even swallowing.
One of the reasons dementia leads to death is because of the characteristics of this stage. There are severe physical needs that if left uncared for, will cause the person to die. Although they are still conscious to some extent, they are no longer able to function on their own.
The later stages of dementia are made up of traits such as:
Because of the nature of advanced dementia, the brain cells increasingly die off which affects every aspect of the individual. Not only does the person go through a major decrease in quality of life, but the reality is their body also begins to slowly decay.
One of the biggest causes of death with dementia is co-existing or underlying conditions. Many people with dementia also have other medical problems that dementia either worsens or contributes to.
For example, someone with heart disease or previous heart attack might have a harder time with dementia because their body will not be able to sustain them as well as someone with an otherwise normal medical history.
Another person with osteoarthritis might experience more severe physical symptoms during the mid or final stages of dementia as their bone mass is already dwindling. Pre-existing mental health issues can also play a huge role in dementia progression.
Health conditions can result in sooner death in someone with dementia. As symptoms accumulate, a person loses touch with their environment and ability to sustain health.
Brain Cell Loss
Dementia is fatal because it eventually results in total deterioration of brain cells and proteins responsible for human functioning. There is no way to keep living an active life if the physical matter in the brain is dying off day by day. That might sound bleak, but with dementia, it is important to know the reality of the condition and prepare to make the most out of the remaining time one does have.
Since all stages of dementia cause impairment to thinking and reasoning, accidents are one of the most widely seen causes of death among patients. It is not uncommon for people with dementia to forget things like leaving their stove or oven on, resulting in a gas leak or fire hazard.
Additionally, accidents might happen during everyday tasks that cause bad falls, slips, or broken bones. Drowning in the bath or dangerous improper use of household appliances can lead to disaster. This is one of the many reasons it’s so important for people with dementia to receive full-time dementia care.
Aspiration Pneumonia and Choking
Those with later stage dementia eventually cannot swallow food and water on their own. This is another major cause of death. People can choke and die. It might sound silly, but it’s a serious and quite common cause of death among dementia patients.
Something called aspiration pneumonia is rampant in dementia cases. This is a type of pneumonia that develops after someone gets food or liquid stuck inside of their lungs. Without realizing it, patients can inhale food particles when eating. Over time, these particles cause irritation and infection inside of the lungs. When sickness becomes too severe, fluid builds up and the lungs cannot breathe anymore.
The most common infections among people living with dementia include UTIs (Urinary Tract Infections), bedsores, chest/lung infections, and skin infections. All of these can lead to more serious issues if they don’t have the care they need to properly resolve infections.
Unsanitary Living Conditions
When a person with dementia cannot take care of themselves, their living conditions can become unsanitary. Some patients have been hospitalized for infected wounds left unaddressed, blood infections, skin diseases, or living with harmful mold or pests in the home. Since the person doesn’t have the awareness to clean up after themselves or feel concerned about lack of sanitation, it can sometimes result in death.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia in the United States. It’s also the leading cause of death among dementia patients. The National Institute on Aging claims Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death among Americans as a whole.
Alzheimer’s is characterized by a decline in cognitive function in elderly people. The onset can be between the ages of 30-60 years old, on average. It results from a loss in the connection between neurons (chemical messengers) in the brain. Symptoms include memory loss, strange behavior, and language complications.
In anatomy, “vascular” has to do with the blood vessels. The term applies to anything that carries blood or oxygen through the body. Therefore, Vascular dementia is one of a blockage or lack of blood or oxygen to the brain.
If an aging person experiences a lack of blood flow for whatever reason, it can contribute to loss of brain function, resulting in dementia. A person with vascular dementia loses their normal thinking capacity and struggles with memory, disorientation, and physical numbness.
This type of dementia is the second most common type of dementia, but it is often left undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Because it’s so misdiagnosed, it coincides with the other most common among dementia disorders with another type, called Lewy Body dementia.
Lewy Body Dementia (LBD)
“Lewy bodies” is the term for a type of abnormal protein buildup in the brain that is often seen in Parkinson’s disease. These proteins, Alpha-synuclein, have specific roles in a healthy brain to carry out memory tasks.
However, if these Alpha-synuclein proteins build up too much, it can cause loss of nerve cell connections that the brain needs. If Lewy bodies are present, a type of dementia can form called LBD or “Parkinson’s dementia”.
Aside from normal dementia symptoms, dementia with Lewy bodies can show other signs. These include hallucinations, stiffness in the body, tremors/shaking, and a flip-flop of attitudes and behaviors.
Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)
Another type of dementia is Frontotemporal dementia. This is mainly characterized by the heavy loss of nerve cells in the brain’s frontal lobes.
People with Frontotemporal dementia experience one of two major patterns. The first is a loss of language, comprehension, and communication, as the part of the brain that controls this is slowly deteriorating. The second is drastic changes in personality and behavior. Each can affect individuals differently from ages 40-60.
There is a distinct difference between FTD and Alzheimer’s disease. Although some symptoms might seem to be the same, FTD is usually one of the syndromes connected with early-onset dementia. Whereas Alzheimer’s disease is more common among elderly people, both types of Frontotemporal dementia are usually diagnosed among people ages 45-65.
As sad as it is, all forms of dementia are fatal. Eventually, both the brain and body can no longer keep up with the damage caused by the loss of cognitive function. But the disease does not have a specific life expectancy.
Someone with dementia can continue to go about their life for years after diagnosis. Alzheimer’s Association states that dementia is a progressive or “slow” disease. This means it takes a long time for dementia to finally take its final toll and end in death.
Some people with dementia live only several months to a year after receiving a diagnosis. Others might end up living semi-normal lives for up to ten years after being diagnosed. It all depends on the person, their health condition, the type of dementia the person has, and the level of care they can receive throughout the remainder of their lives.
The exact cause of dementia is unknown, and there may very well be no particular thing to blame. Many complicated factors come into play when it comes to diagnosing dementia, as well as any cognitive issue in the brain.
Aside from the different types of dementia and their above-mentioned possible causes, personal health also plays a major role in brain decline. If no known injury or defect is detected, an unhealthy lifestyle can contribute to the development of dementia during older age.
At this time there is no treatment for dementia. There is only medical care that can help manage symptoms and support people through their gradual decline.
The options for proper medical care with the diagnosis often include specialty caregivers, individual and family support groups, healthy diet and exercise, and frequent check-ins with your doctor.
Depending on which stage of dementia you or your loved one is in, the level of care required will vary. Someone in the earlier stages might need little to no care if symptoms are mild and not affecting daily life.
On the other hand, someone in the final stages of dementia will most certainly require 24/7 caregiving and constant supervision. If they don’t have the proper care they need to avoid a risk factor such as choking or falling, it could lead to death.
For preventing dementia, the CDC’s recommendation is to live a healthy lifestyle. Eat healthy, organic foods and drink plenty of filtered water. Malnutrition has been shown to contribute to dementia risk.
Exercise regularly and make sure to keep moving your body to stabilize mood, optimal brain function, and keep your muscles & bones strong. Maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol if possible. Go outside and enjoy nature as this regulates the brain as well.
It’s also recommended to engage in mindful activities that promote relaxation and decrease stress. Meditation, spiritual practices, or breathing exercises can help avoid stress in daily life (exercise also helps with stress management).
Having a hobby that stimulates your brain is also a great prevention method. Reading, taking classes, learning new skills, and fulfilling recreational activities all challenge the brain to keep performing at its best.
It’s most beneficial to start such healthy habits at an earlier age and continue it in your daily routine for a lifetime. You don’t have to do everything perfectly, but a little bit of health-promoting tasks every day can keep you in ideal shape physically and mentally. Such habits have been shown to help prevent the onset of dementia.
It can be extremely difficult to watch someone you care about slowly lose themselves over time to dementia. Worldwide, there still tends to be some major misunderstandings about what exactly dementia is and how it affects people. Unfortunately, every type of dementia not only affects the individual diagnosed with it but their family members and loved ones as well.
If your loved one has dementia, being aware of what to expect is the first step. Coming to terms with the disease is necessary for your loved one and your well-being.
Seeking the professional care your loved one needs is crucial as it can keep them as comfortable as possible throughout all stages of dementia. Up until death, it’s important to appreciate as many moments as possible while they are still here and functioning.
Although dementia is fatal, there are plenty of healthcare and support resources to ensure you and your family enjoy the remaining lifespan of the dementia patient to the best of your ability.