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How is Parkinson’s Disease Related to Dementia?

When you hear the diagnosis “Parkinson’s disease,” loss of muscle control and tremors are likely the first symptoms to come to mind. Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder caused by nerve cells in the brain breaking down. As the brain produces less dopamine, neurological function becomes impaired. Although motor impairment is significant in Parkinson’s patients, the National Parkinson Foundation estimates 70 percent of people with the disease will develop some sort of cognitive impairment.

Dementia Symptoms

Dementia symptoms in Parkinson’s patients may not seem very noticeable at first. You may see signs of forgetfulness. He or she may misplace car keys or an important appointment is missed. Over time, the memory loss will become more and more pronounced. Since the disease is progressive, the symptoms may eventually determine whether or not a patient can live independently. He or she may need assistance to help manage the day-to-day effects of their cognitive impairments. Mealtimes and getting ready for the day can be a struggle. Focusing on tasks and problem solving may also prove challenging. Puzzles that may have taken you a day or two to complete in the past may take a week or longer.

If the dementia symptoms become severe, you may have trouble communicating with others and suffer delusions. The communication issues are usually more pronounced in social situations where multiple conversations are going on simultaneously. Dementia symptoms in Parkinson’s patients cause additional issues such as sleep disturbances and mood disorders. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation warns that dementia may also make driving difficult due to impairment in imagery and spatial processes. The individual may not be able to form the mental map required to navigate while driving.

Risk Factors of Dementia in Parkinson’s Patients

Dementia in Parkinson’s patients will not start early on. Very rarely would cognitive impairment be the first symptom noted. Many newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients notice a tremor beginning in the hands or muscle stiffness. After a year following a patient’s diagnosis, dementia symptoms may start becoming more pronounced. As Parkinson’s disease progresses, not only do nerve cells die off, but Lewy bodies form. Lewy bodies refer to clusters of proteins formed within the nerve cells. Lewy bodies in certain areas of the brain affect memory recall and alertness. Patients can also experience hallucinations from the abnormal protein formation.

Since Parkinson’s is most common in older adults, this increases the risk factor for dementia. Although Parkinson’s can be diagnosed in individuals in their thirties, the disease occurs most often in people over the age of 50. If you’re older at the onset of Parkinson’s diseases, your chances of experiencing memory loss are greater. Additional risk factors include the duration of the disease, the severity of your motor symptoms, and your family history. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, patients with the symptoms of PIGD or postural instability and gait disturbance are also more likely to have dementia. Patients with PIGD will often freeze while taking steps and not initiate movement frequently. These patients are also more prone to fall from balance problems.

Parkinson’s Dementia Versus Alzheimer’s Disease

With Parkinson’s disease, there’s no telltale way to predict the symptoms you’ll develop over time. You may or may not develop dementia as the disease progresses. However, Alzheimer’s disease patients will definitively have dementia as a result of their medical condition. Another significant difference is patients with Parkinson’s will also be contending with motor disabilities while facing cognitive impairments. However, the severity of dementia in Parkinson’s patients can be mild in many cases. Traditionally, the rate of decline in mental function is highest in the first four years after a Parkinson’s patient has developed dementia symptoms.

Getting Help

Speaking to a physician is the most important part of managing Parkinson’s disease symptoms. Along with monitoring symptoms, physicians are likely to order a MRI on a patient who has cognitive impairment. The MRI results will help confirm if the symptoms are related to the disease and not caused by another disorder, such as vascular disease and brain tumors. After ruling out structural causes of the dementia, therapy and medications may be prescribed to slow the progression of the disease.

Caregivers can help by making sure the patient has an easy to follow routine to manage daily activities. Caregivers need to remain calm and collected, even when dementia patients become agitated due to their symptoms.

Alzheimer’s Care in New Hampshire

Don’t feel alone as you or a loved one struggle with dementia symptoms. Allow our friendly community members and professional caregivers help. Call Havenwood Heritage Heights to discover all we have to offer residents in the New England area.

By Mike Wall


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