The term dementia refers to a variety of forms of memory loss including Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy Body Dementia, and memory loss related to underlying conditions like traumatic brain injury and alcoholism.
Taken together, however, these different forms of dementia can be devastating and difficult for families and medical professionals alike to handle. Luckily, new research is improving intervention and management options. While there may not be cures, improving quality of life is, in itself, a positive outcome for those impacted.
Understanding Dementia Development
The first step towards improving outcomes for dementia patients is to develop a better understanding of how the condition develops. This includes everything from genetic markers for the conditions to gender differentials in disease course; for example, while women and men experience comparable rates of memory loss, women see greater losses in executive function and other measures of cognitive performance that can increase their risk of developing dementia.
When evaluating how dementia develops, having the right diagnostic technology is also of the utmost importance, and we’re also seeing gains in this area. Along with other conditions, researchers have seen progress in using eye scans to diagnose Alzheimer’s before it becomes symptomatic. Though the research is still in the preliminary stages, success in calculating the risk of hypertension and diabetic retinopathy suggest that it’s a potentially helpful approach.
Root Causes Offer Paths To Prevention
Being able to diagnose dementia more quickly is beneficial for patients and families, but obviously it would be even better if researchers could find ways to prevent the condition from developing in the first place. This will ultimately require a multi-pronged approach, with different strategies for different subtypes of the condition. What we do know, however, is that in Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and certain other conditions, neurodegeneration is a core issue.
In a study supported by Brain Research Foundation, lead scientist Dr. Aimee W. Khao has explored how common daily stresses like infection and head trauma accumulate in the body. She suggests that some individuals may not have enough of the protective protein progranulin to help the body cope with these stresses, and this may cause naturally occurring microglia to attack the brain’s own cells, resulting in the neurodegeneration seen in many forms of dementia. The next step is to find ways to supplement progranulin in patients determined to be deficient in the protein, potentially using induced pluripotent stem cells.
Daily Management Improvements
For individuals with dementia and their families, intensive scientific research is important, but it largely represents a long journey that likely won’t benefit them directly. Rather, what serves these patients most is work meant to improve their daily care and condition management, such as by helping patients manage their activities of daily living (ADLs) or minimize emotional distress.
Among recent insights into these issues, social workers have emphasized helping patients avoid hospitalization, creating routines at home, and eliminating the use of sedative drugs like antipsychotics that can actually worsen symptoms. With proper management, like using simple language, providing comfort objects, and identifying triggers of reactive or negative behaviors, however, family members and other caregivers can better support patients throughout the course of the disease.
There’s no one way to approach dementia care and management, and every patient’s needs are different, but with the right supports, today’s patients and families can navigate whatever difficulties they face. And, with the hard work of researchers, maybe the next generation of patients will have access to better interventions.