Senile dementia is a gradual decline of mental abilities that generally affects those 65 years or older. Persons with dementia experience a decline in social and intellectual skills that is usually irreversible.
Senile dementia can be divided into three categories. Below is a summary of these categories, along with their most common causes:
Alzheimer's type dementia caused by the destruction of neurons (accounts for approximately 65% of all senile dementias)
- Genetic factors
- Family history
Vascular Dementia - caused by a blood circulation problem (accounts for approximately 15% of all senile dementias)
- Cerebrovascular accident (stroke)
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Thyroid function abnormalities
- Infections such as AIDS, syphilis, etc.
- Drug interactions
These factors can disrupt the transmission of messages within the brain, resulting in a decline of mental activity.
Persons most at risk
The main risk factors for senile dementia are age, a family history of dementia, vascular problems and having a low level of schooling.
Symptoms differ slightly depending on the type of dementia and evolve slowly over the course of 5 to 15 years. In the beginning, persons afflicted with the disease are fully aware of their intellectual decline but as the disease progresses, they are no longer conscious of the decline in their functions.
- Memory loss: gradual loss of recent memories (retrograde), then longer-term memory loss (retrograde)
- Aphasia: problems with language and learning
- Personality and behaviour changes
- Confusion and repetition
- Irritability, agitation and depression
- Poor judgement and disorientation
- Sudden laughing or crying outbursts
- Difficulty with language and other symptoms associated with cerebrovascular accidents (paralysis, etc.)
- Change in walking patterns (gait)
- Loss of memory
Diagnosis is made by a physician based on the patient's symptoms and on a physical examination. The physician may also ask the patient a series of questions. The questionnaire consists of thirty or so questions, which are quite simple, to evaluate the patient's level of confusion. Lastly, the physician may suggest certain tests to analyse cerebral tissue.
Certain medications are currently being prescribed to delay or reduce the symptoms of senile dementia. These drugs boost the signals transmitted within the brain which partly counter the decreased brain activity caused by the senile dementia.
Persons with vascular problems should lead a healthy lifestyle to avoid cerebrovascular accidents which may lead to senile dementia. Regular exercise, a low fat diet and stopping smoking are lifestyle choices that reduce one's risk of having a cerebrovascular accident.
Below are a few tips that may prove useful for those who have contact with a person who suffers from senile dementia:
- Regularly accompany the person to the doctor's office to find out whether it is still safe for them to drive.
- Encourage the person to keep up with his or her social activities.
- Label key objects in the house.
- Leave all objects in the same place.
- Maintain a tranquil environment and establish a routine for daily activities.
- Speak slowly and calmly and only deal with one idea at a time.
- Have them carry an identification card in case they wander off.
- Identify yourself before approaching the person.
- Use an agenda or a calendar to write down appointments, birthdays and phone numbers.
Lastly, joining a family support group is a worthwhile option. This will allow family members to really understand the disease and learn how to cope with related issues. If the situation worsens or becomes too much to handle, consider placing your loved one in a specialized healthcare facility that is equipped to care for men and women with senile dementia.
For more information or for support :
Alzheimer Society of Canada