How Dementia Affects the Body AND the Brain

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Rob is in his early 70’s and was recently diagnosed with dementia. His short-term memory has been affected, and his personality isn’t quite the same as it once was. He used to be quite talkative, and interested in government, public policy, and stocks. Now, his interests have dwindled, and he is, for the most part, subdued.

Besides the personality changes and memory loss, something that concerns his daughter and his wife is how physically fit Rob is. This is typically a good thing for most people. Rob had been an avid runner and still runs when a family member or friend goes with him. He is lean and muscular, and other than his dementia, his health is impeccable. Unfortunately, exercising didn’t stave off the debilitating disease itself for Rob, but it is something that he enjoys doing. What happens to people like this whose bodies are in shape, but their minds are not? Will his memory keep deteriorating while his body stays intact and healthy?

Most people know that dementia affects the memory. Memory loss, confusion, disorientation, and speech problems are some of the first symptoms to come to mind for many of us when we think of the disease. But the symptoms can be physical as well as mental, even for those in the best of physical health. For those similar to Rob and his family in our example, it’s important to be aware of what can happen as the disease progresses, so you can stay ahead of the changes you and your loved ones may face, and plan for the future.

Dementia and the Body

Though the cause of dementia is unknown, doctors and researchers believe that the symptoms of the disease are caused by a buildup of harmful proteins in your brain. These proteins get in the way of normal brain function and kill healthy cells. The damage usually starts in the area of your brain that forms memories. People with early-stage dementia often have trouble remembering things. As the disease gets worse, it affects the parts of the brain in charge of bodily behaviors. This is when everyday activities such as walking, eating, going to the bathroom, and talking become harder.

The effects of dementia will differ for each person as it gets worse, and symptoms will vary. The pace can be slow. Some people live up to 20 years after a diagnosis.

Physical Changes Caused by Dementia

Whether or not you are fit, just as people with dementia can lose memories of people and events, they can lose “muscle memories.” Motor skills can also be lost when a part of the brain that sends signals to muscles is damaged. Studies show that changes in gait when walking, such as taking shorter steps with a shift to one side, are a symptom of the disease. Additionally, another contributor to motor problems can be numbness in the extremities. Lastly, someone who has dementia may find it difficult to accomplish things we do with our hands that most of us take for granted. For example, he or she may have trouble writing neatly, buttoning a shirt, tying shoes, or threading a needle.

In a nutshell, some of the physical changes those with dementia may experience include:

• Trouble with endurance
• Loss of balance or coordination;
• Sore feet or muscles;
• Feet that shuffle or drag when you walk;
• Trouble standing or sitting up in a chair;
• Weak muscles and fatigue;
• Difficulty sleeping;
• Depression or general lack of interest;
• Trouble controlling your bladder or bowels;
• Difficulty chewing food and swallowing;
• Seizures.

Again, symptoms of dementia vary, whether or not you were physically fit to begin with.

There are Still Benefits to Staying Physically Fit with Dementia

Exercise may or may not promote longevity for those with dementia. We don’t know how long we will live, or what symptoms will affect us. However, if you have a loved one who is affected by the disease who enjoys exercising, there is no reason to stop. We want loved ones with dementia to do as much as possible for themselves, and exercise can be one of those things.

Exercise has positive effects for everyone. It lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation, helps maintain your sugar levels, and lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain tissue, as the brain is getting more nutrients and things it needs when you exercise.

Being active and getting exercise also helps people with dementia feel less depressed and promotes socializing. These things can’t be bad, so your loved one should keep exercising as long as he or she is safe.
As Dr. James Leverenz of the Cleveland Clinic says, “(m)uch of the current research about dementia suggests that what’s good for the heart – a healthy diet, regular exercise, and keeping a healthy weight – are also good for the brain.”

For those who don’t have dementia, exercise has been known to help stave off the disease, although it doesn’t work for everyone, unfortunately. So, try your best to stay active. For more details about this and other ways to stave off dementia, read my article, “How to Stave Off Dementia.”

Medicaid Asset Protection

Do you have a loved one who is suffering from dementia? Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. To make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation, just call:

Elder Law Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Law Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law DC: 202-587-2797

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