5 Brain Problems That Commonly Affect The Elderly

There are hundreds of different brain conditions that can affect humans. Some are more common than others and tend to affect older people more frequently than younger adults or children. We often think of the senior years as being marred with maladies of the brain. It is somewhat of typical to consider seniors as being forgetful, making errors in judgement and even being confused at times. However, this is not necessarily the norm. While there is some decline in mental health with advancing age, there is no reason that the elderly should be seen as mentally inept.

A better understanding of neurological diseases and genetics these days raises the question such as “what mental problems will I suffer with when I get older” and “will I develop the same mental health problems as my parents”. It is only natural to be concerned about these types of diseases. Forgetting your name, losing all sense of social decorum and not being able to identify friends and family members are symptoms that nobody wants to face in life, irrespective of their age.  While there is age-related changes throughout the body, including the brain, this does not mean that every senior citizen will ultimately fall victim to mental health conditions.

Understanding some of the common ailments, the symptoms that arise and the options for treatment will allow you to identify a problem at the earliest possible stage and seek medical assistance. As with any condition, early diagnosis and intervention generally improves the outcome. We look at five relatively common brain problems in the elderly. There are a host of others that may occur but these five are sometimes confused with each other and at times poorly understood. It is also worthwhile to understand the differences between three of these conditions as outlined under how strokes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease are different.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition where the functions of the brain like memory and judgement is gradually impaired over time. The condition is irreversible. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown. It appears to arise with a defect in the way a protein is deposited in the brain. This protein known as tau protein is an important part of the transport system within nerve cells. However, it Alzheimer’s the tau protein becomes tangled, nerve cells die and there is gradual shrinking of the brain (atrophy).

Who is at risk

Although Alzheimer’s disease can affect any person, the following risk factors have been identified:

  • Family history
  • Being female
  • Past injury to the head
  • Social isolation
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Low intake of fruit and vegetables
  • Pre-existing conditions like hypertension, high blood cholesterol and diabetes
  • Lack of mental stimulation

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder where there is a decline in the number of dopamine-producing nerve cells resulting in problems with movement. Clumps of protein known as Lewy bodies are found in the brains of Parkinson’s patients but its exact role in the disease is not yet clearly understood. The reason why the dopamine-producing nerves die off is not known either. Most of the nerves that are affected are an important component for the regulation and control of movement. The most notable symptoms are slowness of movement and resting tremors.

Who is at risk

Apart from age being a factor since Parkinson’s disease is mainly seen in older people, the other risk factors include:

  • Family history of Parkinson’s disease
  • Being male
  • Exposure to toxins like herbicides and pesticides

Vascular Dementia

At one time it was portrayed that dementia was a normal part of aging but this is not so. Dementia is a group of symptoms and may occur for a number of different reasons. The most common cause is Alzheimer’s disease and the second is vascular dementia.  It is a brain condition affecting cognitive abilities that arises when the blood flow to the brain is restricted as is the case in a stroke or with narrowed arteries that carry blood to the brain. The main features are memory loss, poor judgement, difficulty with language and a gradual inability to carry out otherwise normal daily tasks.

Who is at risk

  • Family history
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • History of depression
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High estrogen levels

Brain Atrophy (Shrinkage)

Brain atrophy, or more correctly cerebral atrophy, is where there is loss of brain tissue. It is not so much a disease on its own rather than a consequence of various diseases. The reason for this loss of brain tissue may differ depending on the underlying cause. It can affect the entire brain (generalized atrophy) or only certain parts of the brain (focal atrophy). There may be impairment of cognitive abilities and/or movement. Cognitive symptoms may range in severity and usually involves memory, judgement, rational thinking and language.

Who is at risk

Brain atrophy is not a condition seen only among the elderly. However, many of the causative conditions are more likely to occur in older people. Brain atrophy may be seen in a stroke, traumatic head injury, vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, brain infections, HIV/AIDS, certain eating disorders, malnutrition and other conditions. It is important to understand that brain atrophy usually has an underlying cause which has to be diagnosed and treated where possible.

Stroke (CVA)

A brain stroke is a condition where a portion of the brain tissue dies due to a restricted blood supply. It is also known as a cerebrovascular accident (CVA). Strokes are one of the major killers among the elderly but it is not always fatal. There can be other lifelong symptoms like paralysis (usually one-sided) and dementia but in some cases the effects of a stroke are almost completely reversible. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential in minimizing the severity of a stroke. Depending on the cause, a stroke is also preventable to a large degree.

Who is at risk

Although a stroke can strike at any age it is most frequently seen in the elderly. The following risk factors are often associated with a stroke:

  • Family history
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Illicit drug use
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Obstructive sleep apnea

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