The Stages Of Dementia Life Expectancy

By Nadia Khan

Updated November 20, 2019

Reviewer Prudence Hatchett, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH

When we hit a certain age, we expect things to become a little more difficult. While aging is a natural part of life, it does come with its challenges, mentally, physically, and emotionally. The later phase of life is often accompanied by difficulties such as motor impairment, mental ailments, and cognitive decline. Struggling with things like memory or recognition can impact the quality of one's life, not to mention, take a toll on the individual's family and loved ones.

Aging and the challenges it brings can seem like an 'old people' problem. However, in truth, the struggles of aging can affect your life at any point, regardless of whether you are a child or an adult. Whether it's a parent or grandparent, watching a loved one suffer from cognitive conditions like Alzheimer's or Dementia can be a heartbreaking experience. Though every individual's circumstances are unique to them, one condition, which commonly impacts most people as they age, is dementia. This article will cover dementia symptoms and stages, as well as the most effective treatment options.

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What Is Dementia?

Dementia is a cognitive disease characterized by memory loss and impairment of other mental functions. Things such as misplacing your keys or forgetting a grocery list are things we all do, and for the most part, are just a normal part of being human and worrying about a dozen different things at once. As people age, it is also normal to experience slight memory loss or difficulty recalling things, but when they become so constant and so severe it starts to interfere with daily life, it may point to dementia.

People often confuse dementia as an illness or disease of its own. However, this is not the case. Instead, it is a general term used to describe a group of symptoms associated with cognitive decline hindering one's ability to carry on as they normally would. Within the umbrella of dementia, one may be diagnosed with any number of conditions.

Types Of Dementia

Dementia is a group of multiple conditions associated with cognitive impairment. The various forms of dementia are caused by different mechanisms and can affect the brain in different ways. Unfortunately, nobody is immune to dementia, and in one form or another, dementia has touched us the lives of many. Some common conditions include:

Vascular Dementia: This type of dementia is the second most common type of dementia, comprising about 10% of the total cases of the condition. Vascular dementia is caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, due to blocked, narrowed, or severely damaged blood vessels. Restricted blood flow to the brain limits the amount of oxygen in the brain, which in turn damages the organ and leads to reasoning and memory problems. The blockages commonly occur as a result of a stroke or other traumatic brain injuries. However, vascular dementia can also happen gradually.

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Lewy Bodies Dementia: Lewy bodies are a type of protein that can grow in abnormal amounts in the nerve cells of the brain. When Lewy bodies are present, they interfere with motor control and cognitive abilities. But, unlike most types of dementia, Lewy body dementia (LBD) most heavily impacts information processing, rather than memory. Due to its impact on motor control, LBD can also cause physical symptoms like tremors and limited muscle movement. Unfortunately, there is no known cause of LBD, so treatment is focused solely on symptom management.

Frontotemporal Dementia: One of the more uncommon types of dementia, frontotemporal dementia, is caused by a buildup of abnormal proteins in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Since these lobes control language and brain, two of the more common symptoms of this dementia are speech problems as well as changes in behavior and personality. Unlike most subtypes of the condition, which largely affects people over the age of 65, frontotemporal dementia is diagnosed in people between the ages of 45-65.

Alzheimer's Disease: Many people think of Alzheimer's as a separate disease from dementia, but it is simply a subtype of the condition. Accounting for 60% to 80% of dementia cases, Alzheimer's is by far the most common type of dementia and is typically the illness that comes to mind when people think of dementia. The exact cause of Alzheimer's is unknown, but people with the condition usually have abnormal clumps and threads of protein in the brain, referred to as plaques and tangles, which damages the brain and ultimately leads to it shrinking.

One common thread among the different types of dementia is that they largely affect people of old age. There is no way to determine the exact life expectancy. Some put the average at about eight to ten years after diagnosis, but some people with the condition can live for up to twenty years with dementia.

Diagnosing Dementia

There is no one single way to diagnose dementia. Most people first experience mild symptoms of the condition and then undergo diagnostic tests to identify the cause of their symptoms. If someone starts experiencing symptoms of dementia, the doctor will conduct physical and neurological tests in order to determine whether dementia is at play.

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Some common dementia diagnosis tests include questionnaires to measure cognitive functioning and other mental exams. If a doctor suspects dementia, they will most likely conduct other tests to rule out any other causes for the symptoms. It is important to remember that memory problems and cognitive difficulties do not always equal to dementia. It is always wise to discuss any changes to your physical or mental health with your doctor in order to best manage any health conditions that may arise.

Stages Of Dementia

Like many diseases, dementia is unique to every individual. However, it shares similarities regarding how it progresses. Dementia can be broken down into seven stages. The seven stages of dementia life expectancy, also known as the Reisberg Scale, breaks down the stages of the condition based on the amount of cognitive decline one experiences.

Stage 1: No Cognitive Decline

The first stage of dementia has no dementia at all. Someone who has no memory difficulties and is otherwise mentally healthy has no dementia and is in stage 1. Most people in the general population fall into this category.

Stage 2: Very Mild Cognitive Decline

Before anyone enters the early stages of dementia, they are likely to experience a very mild cognitive decline expected with aging. Occasional forgetfulness is not a cause for worry and is not indicative of dementia. The friends and family of someone with very mild cognitive decline will not notice any changes in the person's behavior or mental abilities.

Stage 3: Mild Cognitive Decline

The mild cognitive decline, or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), is a condition common amongst the older population. While not everyone who experiences MCI will develop dementia, it is the first hint of dementia for many people who go on to develop it later in life.

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Symptoms of MCI include problems with memory as well as broader information processing difficulties, such as difficulty performing a math problem or broader problem-solving capabilities. Unlike people who experience mild forgetfulness or cognitive difficulties as part of aging, the decline of someone with MCI is apparent to friends and family members and may impact the way someone behaves.

Like dementia itself, the cause of MCI is not completely understood. Current research suggests it has roots similar to that of dementia but to a lesser extent. Brain damage that later leads to dementia, such as plaques and tangles, the presence of Lewy bodies, damage from strokes, or shrinkage of certain areas, are all present in people with MCI, but not as severe as those with dementia. MCI can last quite a long time, with an average duration of approximately seven years.

Stage 4: Moderate Cognitive Decline

Someone with MCI will go on to experience a moderate cognitive decline in which the symptoms of MCI are intensified. They will have trouble concentrating or finishing complex tasks, but for the most part, can live independently and still carry out their normal life on a day-to-day basis. However, at this point, the person may begin to withdraw from friends and family because socialization becomes more difficult. At this stage, physicians can begin to detect signs of dementia.

Stage 5: Moderately Severe Cognitive Decline (Mild Dementia)

Moderate cognitive decline often progresses into mild dementia. The main difference between the two is that mild dementia begins to impact the individual's daily life. Common symptoms of mild dementia include short-term memory loss, trouble with directions or a tendency to get lost, and perhaps most notably, personality changes. The person may need assistance with more complex daily tasks like cooking. The average duration of this stage of dementia is approximately one and a half years.

Stage 6: Severe Cognitive Decline (Middle Dementia)

Once someone progresses from mild to moderate dementia, they will no longer be able to carry out their daily tasks independently. Memory deficiencies become more severe, while basic self-care activities like bathing or dressing may require some assistance.

While mild dementia causes problems with short-term memory, moderate dementia includes memory loss of events from the distant past as well as more recent events. Personality and behavior changes become more pronounced, and they tend to feel suspicious or wary of people or situations, even those they are familiar with and who are part of their regular life.

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Many people with moderate dementia also experience difficulty sleeping or irregular changes to their sleep pattern and may end up sleeping throughout the day while feeling energized or restless at night. This stage of dementia typically lasts approximately two and a half years.

Stage 7: Very Severe Cognitive Decline (Late Dementia)

Severe dementia causes further declining cognitive abilities as well as changes in one's physical abilities. Thus, people with severe dementia lose their ability to carry out tasks independently and often require full-time assistance. They eventually lose their ability to communicate and their psychomotor abilities, such as walking and the ability to swallow.

People in this stage of dementia also tend to be more susceptible to dangerous infections like pneumonia. The duration of this final stage of dementia lasts an average of two and a half years.

Dementia Life Expectancy

Although researchers can determine the average duration of each of the seven stages of dementia, everyone experiences symptoms at different speeds and levels of severity. Someone may experience MCI for decades and never progress into the more severe stages of dementia, while someone else may only be in the initial stage for a year before their condition worsens.

Although the average life expectancy following diagnosis with dementia is ten years, the time can vary greatly based on the type of dementia, the stage the disease was diagnosed, the individual's general health, and many other factors.

However, what is known for a fact is that the earlier the condition is detected, the better the prognosis since they can start getting help and treatment sooner. Because research for treating dementia is ongoing, early detection gives the individual the opportunity to participate in clinical trials for novel treatment methods that may potentially improve their quality of life as well as life expectancy.

Treatment Options

While unfortunately, there is no way of curing dementia, there are certain solutions doctors can recommend in order to provide temporary relief and better manage the symptoms. The most prominent of these solutions are medication and therapy.

Medications:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors - these boost the chemical messengers linked with memory but can cause side effects like nausea and slow down the heart rate.
  • Memantine - regulates the glutamate (also a chemical messenger linked with brain activity). Side effects include dizziness.
  • Other medications - if you are suffering from other conditions like anxiety and depression, the doctor may prescribe medication to manage those symptoms.

Therapy:

  • Occupational Therapy - with the help of an OT, you can figure out how to make your home safer and 'dementia' friendly. This is especially important as dementia progresses.
  • Changes to your environment - get a monitoring system for your safety and get rid of all the extras and non-essential things from your home and environment in order to make life easier for yourself.
  • Structure and Routine - maintaining a routine will help keep your days more predictable and less confusing.

Preventing Dementia: What the Research Shows

If dementia runs in your family and you're worried about how it may affect you, the good news is, research shows several preventative steps you can take at home in order to significantly reduce the risks and chances of getting dementia. Some of these include:

Exercise and Stay Fit

Activities like walking, gardening, swimming (even if it's just for 10 minutes a day) can make all the difference. Exercising is good for the heart and blood circulation and keeps your mind and body healthy.

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Exercise Your Brain

One of the best ways of keeping dementia at bay is keeping your mind sharp and active, which is why puzzles like sudoku, quizzes, learning a new language, or simply reading to expand your knowledge base are all highly recommended.

Cut Back on Bad Habits

If you haven't done so already, give up smoking and cut back on alcohol and caffeine and eat as healthy as you can. The food you eat fuels your body and impacts every inch of you, so make sure you're only putting good things in there. Smoking, alcohol, and drugs can also cause other illnesses and health complications.

While there is no way of preventing dementia with certainty, these are just some little changes you can make and things you can do to improve your overall health and hopefully prevent dementia.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

A diagnosis of dementia, or even just the emergence of early symptoms of cognitive impairment, can be a huge burden for someone to bear. Not surprisingly, there is evidence of comorbidity between dementia and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

Dementia also has an impact on the people in the individual's life. Watching a loved one suffer from dementia can be extremely difficult, and symptoms of depression or anxiety may occur. This is especially true among caregivers for people with dementia and Alzheimer's. It is not uncommon for them to struggle with burnout and stress. Whether you are struggling with early symptoms of dementia yourself, or you have a loved one going through dementia or another age-related condition, a therapist or counselor at BetterHelp can help you get through this difficult period. Available around the clock with a click of a button, these mental health professionals can answer all your questions and provide you with all the support you need.

Learning the best coping strategies to manage your emotions can help you focus on what is important and make the most of your time with your loved ones. Below you may read reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"I've been working with Meghan for a few months now, and have never been so confident in a therapist. She is very prompt in her responses, and it is very obvious that she cares about her clients. She has been a source of comfort when my days are bad, and just an ear when my days are not. I don't know what I would do without her. She is truly gifted at her work."

"I've worked with many therapists before, but my work with Don is different. We are focused on my goals and managing the things that I can't change. His approach is incredibly patient and engaging, and I always feel like I have a plan at the end of my sessions. He won't let me slide, but I never feel judged or pushed. I'd highly recommend working with him. He's helped me feel hope during a hopeless time."

Conclusion

We all know aging is a normal part of life, but that does not make it any easier to see a loved one struggle with their memories or struggle to get through their daily tasks. The best you can do is arm yourself with as much knowledge on the subject as you can and provide your loved one with support, patience, and understanding.

If you start to notice signs of possible dementia in a loved one, encourage them to seek medical help. While there is no way to determine someone's specific life expectancy with the condition, it is always beneficial to bring up any possible symptoms of dementia with a physician right away so the illness and symptoms can be managed.

In the meantime, you can prevent your chances of getting dementia by taking the steps discussed above. The most important thing to remember is, no matter what you're experiencing, help is available.


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