Dementia | Cause, Symptoms, Treatments and other Remedies
Authors: Rachel Green & Wendy Rhodes
Millions of Americans develop dementia in their later years.
As the body ages, sometimes the brain can experience abnormal changes that result in a decline of cognitive abilities such as short- and long-term memory, a decrease in thinking or reasoning skills, and losing the ability to live or function independently.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is not a specific disease, but rather a broader term that encompasses a variety of cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy Body Dementia, Vascular Dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or Huntington’s disease.
Sometimes there is more than one type of dementia present in an individual, called mixed dementia. According to alz.org, between 50-60% of dementia cases are attributed to Alzheimer’s disease.
Vascular Dementia is the second leading cause of dementia-related memory loss. This type of disease occurs as a result of blood vessel blockage and microscopic bleeding in the brain. Diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s have symptoms that affect cognitive ability that is also referred to as dementia.
While these conditions cause irreversible damage to cognitive function and memory, other conditions such as thyroid disorders or vitamin deficiencies can cause a temporary impairment of brain functions or memory loss that is not permanent.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
While senility and forgetfulness are normal parts of aging, Alzheimer’s disease is not. In fact, advanced age is not always part of Alzheimer’s.
According to alz.org, approximately 200.000 individuals in the U.S. have early-onset Alzheimer’s under the age of 65. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that can first look like simple forgetfulness or memory loss.
As the disease progresses, however, it will ultimately result in a person’s inability to carry on a conversation or respond to their environment appropriately.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and individuals with the diagnosis typically live four to eight years after their diagnosis – but can sometimes live up to an additional 20 years.
While there is no cure, there are a plethora of treatments and ways to improve the quality of life and slow the symptoms of those with the disease.
The Brain and Alzheimer’s Disease
Memory loss due to Alzheimer’s is caused by microscopic changes in the brain years before the first sign of forgetfulness.
Each of the 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) in the brain connects with the other nerve cells to form communication networks. Different nerve cell networks have different jobs such as thinking, remembering, or learning new information, seeing, smelling, tasting, and hearing.
These networks have amazing infrastructure that receives information, generates energy from equipment, and eliminates waste all while processing and storing information and communicating with other cells. This detailed network requires plenty of fuel and oxygen.
Alzheimer’s disease disrupts these networks and prevents parts of a cell’s “factory” from running well. Although scientists are not entirely sure when the disease first infiltrates these communication networks, they do know that once the disease affects one cell, it causes a chain reaction and more cells become damaged.
As the disease spreads, these cells eventually die, resulting in irreversible alterations to the brain.
Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s
While younger people under the age of 65 can develop early-onset Alzheimer’s, it remains primarily a disease associated with advanced age. Alz.org states that after an individual is 65 years old, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years.
After a person turns 85, the risk reaches almost one-third.
A family history of Alzheimer’s may indicate a stronger propensity for an individual to develop Alzheimer’s. The risk of a person developing Alzheimer’s increases if there is more than one family member with the disease.
Scientists are starting to see a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s in individuals who lead generally healthy lives by eating well, exercising regularly, learning new things, reading, and sleeping well.
Symptoms of Dementia
If someone is experiencing these symptoms, talk to a doctor:
- Forgetting recently learned information, repeating the same questions, or regularly forgetting things normally done on a daily basis. Memory loss that regularly affects a daily routine is a red flag.
- Difficulty with simple planning or problem-solving, such as following a recipe, remembering numbers, or keeping track of recurring monthly bills.
- Trouble completing familiar tasks like driving to the grocery store or forgetting to turn off the oven.
- Mixing up times or places, such as confusing the events of twenty years ago with something that happened just one year ago.
- Difficulty with speaking or writing, such as carrying on a back-and-forth conversation or losing a train of thought in the middle of a sentence.
- Misplacing items or not putting things in their usual places, such as dishes in a linen closet or a phone in the refrigerator.
- Mood or personality changes such as fearful, irritable, or suspicious moods in either a new setting or a familiar one.
Treatment for Dementia
Ay serious concern about dementia should be immediately discussed with a healthcare provider. Doctors may be able to rule out other causes of temporary memory loss and catch underlying health issues.
A variety of medications may be prescribed to individuals with dementia intended to treat different symptoms. Mood stabilizers, anxiety meds, antidepressants, and sleep aids may be commonly prescribed when appropriate.
Some individuals may participate in cognitive therapy to slow the advancement of cognitive impairment and retain some memory function.
Natural Treatments for Dementia
Going for a walk, getting good cardiovascular exercise, and breathing fresh air can not only help individuals feel better overall but can also improve the flow of oxygen to the brain and encourage better moods and sleep patterns.
Eating a diet rich in vitamins and nutrients can help fuel those communication networks in the brain while also promoting better health overall.
Good Sleep and Weighted Blankets
While disrupted sleep is a common occurrence for those battling dementia, sleep is vital to mood stabilization, mental and physical health, and cognitive function. Using a weighted blanket at night may help combat Sundowning and other common sleep disturbances related to dementia.
Sundowning and Other Sleep Issues
They also state that an estimated 20% of individuals with Alzheimer’s experience increased agitation, irritability, and confusion later in the day and around dusk. Hence the term “sundowning.”
Some potential factors that may contribute to sundowning may include end-of-the-day exhaustion, confusion of days and nights by the person’s internal body clock, fear or confusion due to decreased light, reactions to the non-verbal cues of caregivers who are tired at the end of the day, or simply a decreased need for sleep.
Tips for Caregivers and Sundowning
Some simple tips that might help ease the nighttime difficulties for caregivers may include establishing a nighttime routine or leaving on a light to ease fears or confusion. Also, a sleep space and bed should be comfortable.
Make sure that the individual is not too warm or too cold, that the textures of the fabric or pajamas are not irritating, and that the environment feels safe and secure.
Sometimes a weighted blanket may help an anxious or fretful person settle down for a long night of sleep and ease other common symptoms related to dementia.
Can A Weighted Blanket Help Ease Symptoms of Dementia?
There are many secondary symptoms of dementia besides the most well-known symptom of memory loss. Many individuals with dementia struggle with anxiety, fear, and confusion, depression, irritability, aggressiveness, falls, injury, restlessness, and insomnia.
Certainly, each of these secondary symptoms is disruptive to the overall well-being of the individual as well as disruptive and difficult to manage for the caregiver.
Let’s take a look at weighted blankets and how they may help those dealing with dementia and its other symptoms.
What Are Weighted Blankets?
As the name suggests, weighted blankets are blankets that are weighted. Using a quilting style of stitching, rows of pockets are filled with tiny fillers such as pellets or glass beads.
This creates weight that is evenly distributed over the body. Using the science of deep touch pressure, the firm, gentle weight of a weighted blanket can soothe the central nervous system, easing symptoms such as restlessness, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Anxiety or Panic Attacks
Individuals suffering from anxiety or panic attacks may greatly benefit from the use of a weighted blanket.
Those battling dementia are often anxious and agitated due to their decline in cognitive function and increased feelings of confusion.
This constant cloud of confusion hovering around those with dementia can create a great deal of stress, culminating with feelings of panic, or experiencing panic attacks.
Using a weighted blanket can gently apply pressure over the body that has a calming effect. Much like a baby is soothed by swaddling or a child is reassured by a hug, weighted blankets can soothe the nervous system that is overwhelmed by fear or anxiety.
Mood Swings and Depression
As we discussed previously, one of the earliest signs of dementia in an individual may be drastic mood swings or a personality change. This is caused primarily by changes in the brain, but may also be exacerbated by a depressed mood.
Those with dementia often feel confused and anxious which can, in turn, lead to feelings of depression.
Weighted blankets can also be a good natural remedy for depression. Weighted blankets promote the natural production of serotonin, which is the happy hormone. Feeling secure and safe under a weighted blanket can ultimately help ease the feelings of depression and promote a sense of calm.
Of course, any time depression is suspected, a doctor should be consulted first. But for caregivers also looking for natural ways to promote overall mood stability, a weighted blanket may be a good option.
Agitation and Aggression
Remember, the ability to process verbal instructions is difficult or impossible for people with impaired cognitive function. Yelling or sudden movements will likely only make the situation worse.
Sometimes using a weighted blanket or weighted lap pad across the shoulders or lap can help calm an agitated individual.
As a sense of calm pervades a person from the use of a weighted blanket, serotonin – and eventually, melatonin – production will kick into gear and help ease the irritability that may lead to aggression.
Falls and Self Injury
As individuals lose cognitive function, they also become more clumsy and, therefore, more susceptible to falls and injury.
While it may seem odd for weighted blankets to benefit in this manner, the deep touch pressure can promote more self-awareness and proprioceptive input which makes a person more aware of their muscle movements and surroundings.
This input may help improve balance and coordination and may help reduce the risk of falls for ambulatory dementia patients.
Insomnia and Restlessness
One of the most common complaints among caregivers of dementia patients is the lack of rest. It is not difficult to imagine how confusion, anxiety, and agitation would hinder restful sleep.
Sundowning is a common occurrence among dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, possibly resulting in more health problems for the individual as well as fatigue and frustration for the caregiver.
In addition to promoting an overall feeling of calm and a sense of well-being, weighted blankets can also help promote the natural production of serotonin. This happy chemical in turn promotes the production of melatonin.
Melatonin is the chemical produced by the body that results in sleep. No melatonin, no sleep. It’s easy to see why caregivers battling sundowning or other sleep disturbances may want to consider a weighted blanket for its natural promotion of melatonin.
Also, for individuals who are restless at night or wanting to get up several times at night, a weighted blanket can have a calming effect that encourages them to stay in bed. The extra weight does not prevent them from moving, but it does subconsciously encourage stillness.
Choosing the Right Weighted Blanket for Dementia
When selecting the right weighted blanket there are some important factors to consider. The first is the weight. Ideally, a weighted blanket should weigh 10% of the person’s body weight plus one to two pounds. So, a person who weighs 120 pounds would need a blanket that is between 12 and 14 pounds to experience the proper amount of pressure.
Next, consider the fabric. Does the individual get hot easily and sweat at night? Or do they constantly require extra layers of clothing or blankets due to easy chills? Cotton blends are more breathable and stay cooler.
Flannel holds in heat. Some all-season weighted blankets are also available for those who sometimes need extra warmth or sometimes need a more breathable fabric.
Finally, consider maintenance. Some weighted blankets can be thrown into a washing machine, but some cannot.
If an individual is prone to accidents at night and the blanket will require more laundering, consider a durable or water-resistant duvet to protect the weighted blanket. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions for washing before purchasing or cleaning.
Dementia is a heartbreaking disease that is difficult for individuals to experience, as well as their loved ones. Taking the time to carefully consider all the potential treatments, read up on the ever-evolving research, and select the right natural remedies is important. Be sure to consult a doctor any time new symptoms appear.
Weighted blankets can help to ease the symptoms of anxiety, depression, irritability, mood swings, insomnia, and restlessness for many individuals. Find the right weighted blanket and use it in the right way to help manage these symptoms naturally while also promoting good emotional health, good moods, and good rest.