When doctors talk about dementia, they refer to the loss of a patient’s ability to recall information, think clearly, or reason. Dementia and memory loss will typically impair someone’s ability to function safely and comfortably in daily life. While dementia doesn’t affect everyone the same way, symptoms usually include memory loss, diminished language skills, inability to problem-solve, and loss of self-care abilities. Some people may experience a sudden onset of symptoms of dementia, while others will gradually deteriorate over time. Dementia presents differently in a variety of situations and can progress at different rates.
While minor memory loss or forgetfulness can be symptoms of aging, dementia is very different and requires care and evaluation. For many people, benign forgetfulness or “senior moments” are just a part of living a long life and often don’t impact daily activities or safety. Dementia is a debilitating condition that will worsen over time and interfere with a patient’s ability to function.
There are 7 stages of dementia that progress from very little cognitive decline to severe cognitive impairment. Understanding dementia and its progression is key to assisting family members and others with this condition.
How is dementia diagnosed?
While no single test or screening can determine dementia, a doctor will examine numerous factors to determine a diagnosis. Physicians will base a diagnosis on medical history, physical exam, laboratory tests, and behavior patterns. Cognitive tests might also be used to measure someone’s memory, learning, and language skills. After a thorough examination of the evidence, doctors can usually diagnose dementia with a high level of certainty. The difficulty for doctors comes in predicting the progression of dementia and determining the exact type. Biomarkers can help point to Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.
What are the stages of dementia?
When a person has been diagnosed with dementia, a stage of illness will be determined depending on their symptoms. The Global Deterioration Scale (GDS) is used to identify what stage of the disease a person is in. Pre-dementia stages are 1-3, and noticeable cognitive decline is present in stages 4-7. Once a person reaches the fifth stage of dementia, they can usually no longer live without assistance.
The first stage of dementia is where the majority of the population lies. People without any associated symptoms who are deemed to be mentally healthy or normal are in stage one. Stage two can be the typical age-related memory loss that many seniors experience. Very mild cognitive decline in stage two could be the result of age or very early-stage dementia. Mild cognitive decline in stage three will become very noticeable to family or friends. More than memory loss, patients at this stage will experience trouble with problem-solving, work performance, and concentration. Stage three of dementia will begin to impact daily life.
Stage four of dementia is when more health care intervention by medical professionals is usually required. Symptoms of stage four include social withdrawal, easy agitation, non-responsiveness, and difficulty with routine tasks. At stage five, a person with dementia is likely to need daily assistance and care. In stage five, there is reduced mental acuity and problem-solving skills, moderate memory loss, and increased confusion. Stage six will require that patients receive help with things like bathing, going to the toilet, or eating. Anxiety, paranoia, and difficulty recognizing loved ones are common with stage six.
Stage seven is late-stage dementia and is accompanied by very severe cognitive decline. Stage seven patients usually cannot care for themselves and experience significant difficulty with everyday tasks. Late-stage dementia symptoms include severe motor and communication impairment and the loss of the ability to speak or walk.
Dealing with a dementia diagnosis for a family member or loved one is never easy. Keeping in contact with medical professionals is the best way to navigate the difficulties of the condition. With understanding and patience, you can find the right tools and strategies for helping your loved ones.