The Horrifying Way Dementia Destroys Your Body and Mind

Over 5 million Americans currently live with dementia. Thousands will die from it this year. It’s much easier to prepare for more common symptoms as the disease progresses — like forgetting things — but not so easy when the body becomes unwell.

What’s actually going on in the brain when all this starts happening? What might happen besides basic forgetfulness? Here are the mental and physical symptoms to watch for, and how you might be able to prevent them.

What is dementia?

Dementia gets worse over time. | Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

Dementia is a progressive brain disease that often develops slowly over time. It progresses in stages, which means the longer you live with it, the worse your symptoms become. There are many mental symptoms that develop along the way, but it diminishes a person’s physical well-being at the same time.

Next: Alzheimer’s is just one of many forms.

Types of dementia besides Alzheimer’s

Two trees in the shape of a human head and brain as a symbol of the stress

Parkinson’s is closely related to dementia. | iStock.com/wildpixel

Though Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and well-known form of this disease, it isn’t the only one. Other possible types include Parkinson’s disease, mixed dementia, and a type of dementia that affects communication but not necessarily memory.

Next: Your brain can’t go on like this.

What does dementia do to your brain?

Concept of dementia disease and a loss of brain function

Dementia is related to a buildup of proteins in the brain. | iStock

Unless it occurs due to a brain injury or other completely unrelated disease, dementia likely results from a buildup of proteins in the brain. These protein clusters are called tangles and plaques, and interfere with your brain’s ability to carry out normal functions.

Next: Sometimes, you can’t quite think of that one word.

Trouble communicating

Forgetting words is an early sign of dementia. | iStock

In the early stages of the condition, a person might struggle to think of the exact words they want to use in conversation. This is a sign that there’s a problem with the part of the brain responsible for language and communication. This often gets progressively worse over time.

Next: Sometimes you’re there physically, but not quite “there” mentally.

Problems paying attention

It becomes more difficult to focus on the present. | Mandygodbehear/iStock/Getty Images

With cognitive decline often comes the inability to focus on what’s happening in the present. Someone might start having a hard time following conversations or listening when someone talks to them. It’s not that they’ve forgotten, exactly — though that can also become a problem.

Next: Your memory might not be as sharp as it once was.

Forgetfulness

Senior Man With Adult Daughter

Things that used to be second nature are forgotten. | Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock/Getty Images

This is one of the most well-known signs of dementia, and one of the more difficult to detect. A person with the condition might not even realize they’re having memory problems. It’s also a symptom commonly associated with getting older, so even your loved ones might not notice anything out of the ordinary at first.

Next: It’s more common to feel this strong emotion when you have dementia.

Anger and aggression

Dementia is incredibly frustrating to deal with. | iStock

Dementia can affect many different parts of the brain — even the sections responsible for controlling your emotions and ability to communicate. It’s common for someone with dementia to become frustrated if they’re having a hard time expressing how they’re feeling or understanding instructions.

Next: You might start complaining about these more often.

Headaches

Headaches and dementia may be linked. |  iStock

Some research suggests that headaches and migraines might be more common for people with dementia, though the exact reasons why aren’t clear. It could happen because of physical changes in the brain, or it could be an indirect symptom of complications that come up because of the disease.

Next: You might feel a little off-balance.

Trouble walking or balancing

Walking gets increasingly difficult. | iStock

Getting around can become more of a chore as you age, but even more so in those living with dementia. As brain function declines, so can a person’s ability to stand up and walk around safely. They might need more help navigating and interacting with their living space.

Next: This side effect can become extremely dangerous.

Weight loss

scale, weight loss, fitness, measuring tape

Some people forget to eat and become malnourished. | Thinkstock

As dementia progresses, eating becomes more of a challenge both mentally and physically. The condition itself doesn’t cause weight loss, but dietary interventions might be necessary if someone becomes malnourished.

Next: Everyday things become harder — sometimes even impossible.

Problems chewing and swallowing

Frozen food in the refrigerator

People with dementia sometimes need to change their diets.  | iStock.com/BravissimoS

You don’t usually have to think about chewing or swallowing your food when your brain’s working correctly. When it isn’t, simple everyday things become complicated. In addition to weight loss, motor control issues involving eating and drinking can cause dehydration and become life-threatening.

Next: It’s a more painful condition than you might realize.

Stomach pain

Woman Has Stomach Ache

Stomach pain isn’t uncommon. | iStock.com/champja

The human body does whatever it can in its fight to stay alive, but that doesn’t always come without pain. It’s common for people with dementia to experience stomach pain, as well as discomfort, in other areas of the body — even if they can’t always tell you what hurts.

Next: The more dementia progresses, the less control you have over your body.

Incontinence

Yellow bathroom with claw foot tub

It becomes harder to make it to the bathroom in time. | irinia88w/iStock/Getty Images

There are a number of reasons someone with dementia might become incontinent. Anything from dehydration to a urinary tract infection might cause loss of bladder or bowel control in later stages of the condition.

Next: Dementia is progressive — it can develop over years.

How long can a person live with dementia?

There’s no timetable for dementia. | Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

Depending on the type of dementia, a person can live as few as three or four years after their diagnosis or well over a decade. Certain treatment options can help a loved one live many more healthy years with the disease, even though it can’t be fully cured.

Next: You can reduce your risk with a few simple habits.

How to decrease your dementia risk

senior couple reading a map while traveling

Living a full, healthy life can help keep dementia at bay. | jacoblund/iStock/Getty Images

Do you want to decrease your dementia risk? It’s never too early — or too late. You can decrease your risk simply by taking walks, spending more time with your loved ones, and even having a more positive outlook on life as you age.

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