For people 65 and over, Dementia is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States. The average life expectancy for a person diagnosed with Dementia is around ten years, but this can vary depending on other lifestyle and healthcare factors.
As dementia gets worse, it can sometimes lead to death. How does this happen?
Contrary to what some may believe, it is not just a medical problem that robs you of your memory.
It also takes away your ability to function independently over time, as the parts of the brain that control movement, control, and vital bodily processes are also slowly destroyed due to the progression of the disease.
So, Dementia does not kill you directly and immediately, but rather, you will pass away from other medical problems that are worsened by Dementia.
When looking at the possible causes of death from dementia, it’s important to look at the different types, signs, and stages of decline, as well as any related problems, like urinary tract infections or pneumonia, that can be fatal if not treated.
Let’s dive in.
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What is Dementia?
Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.
It can result from physical alterations in the brain, impacting recollection, cognition, expression, discernment, and conduct.
Dementia is a collective term that describes a group of illnesses leading to cognitive decline.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for between 60 and 80 percent of all cases.
Other forms of dementia include Vascular Dementia, Lewy Body Dementia, Frontotemporal Dementia, and Mixed Dementias.
I will cover these specific types in greater detail below.
Different types of Dementia
There are many different types of Dementia. Diagnosing and managing them can be rather difficult, and unless they are appropriately trained, many physicians fail to properly diagnose them in their patients. To complicate things further, many symptoms overlap between the different types of Dementia.
However, it is important to keep in mind that the management of Dementia, regardless of the type, is still the same.
To stay aligned with the focus of this article, I will not go into the specific non-medication and medication management of Dementia. To learn about that, I highly encourage you to read my other article, which goes into great detail here.
Then, there is reversible dementia, and the management of that is very different. I wrote an article about that too, and you can find it here.
Okay, let’s get into the different types of Dementia:
As mentioned above, the most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Other forms of dementia include vascular, Lewy body, Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), and mixed dementias.
Vascular dementia is a cognitive disorder caused by inadequate blood flow to the brain, usually stemming from strokes or other medical issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Signs may involve confusion, lack of focus and choice-making difficulty, memory loss, impaired decision-making abilities, personality or conduct changes, feelings of sadness, and uneasiness.
Treatment typically involves lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise along with medications to control any underlying cause or medical conditions contributing to symptoms.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) is a neurological disorder caused by the abnormal buildup of alpha-synuclein proteins in certain regions of the brain, which can lead to progressive mental deterioration over time.
Symptoms may include:
- Hallucinations or delusions
- Difficulty walking
- Sleep disturbances
- Mood swings
- Memory loss
- Trouble focusing
- Slowed movement or speech patterns (bradykinesia)
- Poor coordination or balance problems (ataxia)
Treatment includes medications for symptom management and supportive care from family members/caregivers who can provide structure and support during this difficult period.
Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)
Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) is a cluster of ailments typified by advancing impairment to the frontal and temporal lobes.
This can lead to drastic changes in behavior, such as saying or doing things that are completely socially inappropriate (such as walking up to a stranger’s table at a restaurant and eating food from their plate), and language deficits, like difficulty finding words or inappropriately using them.
Treatment focuses on symptom management with medication, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, counseling services, and more, depending on individual needs.
Mixed dementias refer to multiple types occurring simultaneously, such as Alzheimer’s Disease combined with Vascular Dementia.
This form tends to have more severe symptoms than either one alone because both processes are occurring at once.
As with other forms, treatment focuses on symptom management through lifestyle modifications like diet and exercise, medications, social support, etc., depending on individual needs.
Dementia is an intricate disorder with various manifestations, which can have varied impacts on the psychological well-being of the persons affected.
Acknowledging the signs and phases of dementia is essential for providing enhanced aid and backing to those afflicted by it, although apprehending the diverse forms of dementia can be a difficult task.
3 Stages of Dementia
Knowing the signs and stages of dementia can help people understand how the condition develops over time and plan for future care needs.
Many people with dementia usually progress through three stages:
1. Mild or early stage Alzheimer’s Disease
In the early stage of dementia, individuals may experience subtle changes in their cognitive abilities, such as difficulty with problem-solving or remembering recent events. They may also have trouble concentrating or organizing tasks. Some specific things they may experience are:
Misplacing valuable belongings more so than usual (example, losing car keys 3 or 4 times a month)
Increasing difficulty planning tasks and events. These are called IADLs.
They can still function independently but are starting to see issues with driving and participating in social and work activities.
Friends and family start to notice that their loved one is struggling with some basic tasks. At this stage, a trained physician or neuropsychologist can verify the impairment with cognitive screening tests.
2. Moderate or middle stage Dementia
As dementia progresses into its middle stage, people may experience an even greater decline in their functional ability. Symptoms may include:
- Forgetting their address or phone number
- Trouble controlling their bladder and bowel
- Confusion with time and place
- Sleeping during the day and wandering at night
- Getting lost on familiar roads
- Increased “fender benders” and unsafe driving
- Mood changes, withdrawing from social or mentally challenging activities
- Requiring help with dressing, toileting, and other basic life activities (ADLs)
- Personality and behavioral changes (suspicious of others, physically lashing out, delusions, compulsive behavior)
3. Severe or late stage Dementia
In late-stage dementia, individuals may become completely dependent on others for care due to their inability to remember even basic activities.
At this stage, people living with dementia will:
- Need around-the-clock help with their ADLs
- Lose the ability to communicate effectively
- Be unaware of their surroundings and not remember events or conversations from minutes ago
- Be at risk for infections and decline physically
- Lose their ability to walk, sit, and finally, swallow.
They will ultimately die from complications.
So, it is very important to take the right steps if you or someone close to you shows signs of mental impairment.
How Does Dementia Kill You?
Because Dementia negatively impacts a person’s ability to make safe decisions, the risk of accidents both at home and outside increases dramatically.
Additionally, since Dementia can also affect mobility, stability, and spatial awareness, the individual is more likely to experience falls and dangerous fractures.
The older adult living with Dementia most likely has other chronic medical problems such as heart disease, previous stroke, diabetes, etc.
These problems are worsened as Dementia ravages the remaining brain cells responsible for controlling bodily functions, making it impossible for the body to handle the added physiological stress.
Here are some causes that can bring about death:
UTI complications and other infections
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common among those living with dementia due to their weakened immune systems and decreased ability to communicate when they feel unwell or have other symptoms of infection, such as fever or pain while urinating.
A whole-body infection and sepsis can occasionally result from the infection spreading outside the urinary system and into the bloodstream. Body organs may shut down as a result of sepsis. If prompt medical care is not given, Sepsis always results in death.
Aspiration pneumonia and choking
Aspiration pneumonia is a potential danger for those suffering from severe forms of dementia due to their impaired swallowing reflexes.
Muscle weakness or lack of coordination between muscles involved in eating movements, such as tongue movement, may cause difficulty chewing or swallowing, which could put individuals at risk for choking on food if help isn’t provided quickly enough after noticing signs like gagging during meals.
If food particles are inhaled rather than swallowed, this can cause irritation and infection in the lungs, leading to coughing and breathlessness.
All these complications can be fatal if left untreated over time.
Aspiration pneumonia is the most common cause of death in Alzheimer’s patients.
Bed sores, also known as pressure ulcers or decubitus ulcers, are a common complication of dementia.
As the disease progresses and mobility decreases, bed sores can develop due to prolonged pressure on certain areas of the body. These ulcerations can result in potentially grave infections if not managed correctly.
Bed sores are most commonly observed on bony parts of the body, such as the heels, hips, elbows, shoulder blades, and back of the head – areas where the skin is particularly thin and delicate, making it more prone to wear from shearing or pressure when someone remains in the same position for extended periods without shifting.
When bed sores form, they often start off as red patches that may feel warm to the touch but then progress into open wounds with yellowish-white centers surrounded by inflamed tissue.
If neglected, these lesions can become contaminated with germs, resulting in sepsis.
How does dementia cause death?
It can cause difficulty with daily activities such as eating, bathing, dressing, and communicating.
Over time, dementia can lead to death due to complications such as infection or malnutrition.
In advanced stages of dementia, patients may become bedridden and unable to care for themselves, which increases their risk of developing infections or other medical conditions that can be fatal if left untreated.
Dementia can also lead to dangerous falls, potentially resulting in death or injury.
How fast can you die from dementia?
The rate of death from dementia varies greatly depending on the type and severity of the condition as well as other factors such as age and overall health.
On average, an individual diagnosed with early dementia may live up to 10 years.
In general, individuals with advanced dementia may pass away within one to three years after diagnosis.
However, in some cases, if the person receives adequate care and treatment, they could survive for longer. Ultimately, there is no definite answer for how fast someone can die from dementia since each case is unique.
How does dementia kill the brain?
It gradually destroys nerve cells in the brain, leading to impaired cognitive abilities such as confusion and difficulty with language, planning, and problem-solving.
Dementia’s relentless onslaught can ultimately cause physical changes in the brain, resulting in death.
In the late stages of dementia, individuals succumb to infections or become unresponsive due to severe brain damage caused by the disease.
The answer to the query “does dementia kill?” is yes. It’s important to be mindful that various factors are involved in this process.
Dementia can bring about a range of difficulties and diseases that, if not managed promptly, could prove fatal. It is possible for a person with dementia to succumb to aspiration pneumonia or choke on their food due to difficulties in swallowing.
Bed sores can also become infected and cause death if left untreated.
Ultimately, however, it’s important for caregivers and family members of those with dementia to stay informed about potential risks so they can take steps toward prevention or early intervention when necessary.