On its own, dementia doesn’t normally cause death. But as the condition progresses, it’s possible for a person living with dementia to become more vulnerable to infections. For family caregivers, understanding how dementia progresses is a crucial part of preparing for the challenges that may lie ahead. Similarly, learning about dementia stages and the circumstances that can lead to dementia-related death can help a person living with the condition to enjoy the highest quality of life possible.
What is dementia?
Dementia results in the decline of a person’s cognitive functions. As a general term, dementia describes a group of symptoms as opposed to a specific disease. While there are several classifications and types of dementia, symptoms generally start with mild memory loss and challenges with reasoning. These symptoms can eventually progress to the point where an individual will need to rely on others for assistance with daily activities. Although nearly 5 million people in the United States ages 65+ have dementia, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s not a part of the normal aging process.
How does dementia affect the mind and body?
Changes in the brain that are likely to lead to dementia may begin long before a diagnosis is made. How quickly dementia progresses often depends on the individual and the underlying cause(s) of their symptoms. As the condition develops, both cognitive and physical symptoms begin to emerge.
The most commonly discussed dementia symptoms — cognitive decline and memory loss — interfere with a person’s ability to concentrate and complete everyday tasks. These symptoms eventually advance to the point that a person has diminished awareness of their surroundings and recent memories. A person living with dementia can become unable to care for their personal needs or live independently.
While discussions of dementia often center on memory loss, the condition also affects a person’s functional abilities and mobility. A person may lose the ability to verbally communicate, walk, or sit. Difficulty with swallowing is another common functional challenge, and people living with dementia can become more vulnerable to infection in the later stages of the condition.
How do people die from dementia?
Pneumonia is cited as the most common cause of death for people living with dementia, according to a study published in the European Journal of Neurology. Other conditions that can cause death as a result of dementia may include:
- Injuries that result from a fall
- Blood clots
- Sepsis, caused by the spread of infections like urinary tract infections (UTIs) and pneumonia
Immune function weakens naturally with age, but some studies suggest that dementia can affect the immune system’s ability to respond to infections as cited in a 2021 article in the research journal Frontiers. In addition, bacteria and viruses may more easily infect a person with dementia, because the condition has been found to cause a weakening of the barrier that protects the brain, according to an article in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Difficulties with eating and drinking are also common for people living with dementia. Complications can be severe and may even lead to death if a person becomes dehydrated or malnourished. Eating challenges like dysphagia can cause accidental inhalation of food particles and may result in a potentially deadly infection: aspiration pneumonia.
A disease or medical condition that exists with others, called comorbidities, can create additional complications and may lead to death for dementia patients. Examples of these include conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, or cancer.
Delivering quality care for people living with dementia
It’s important to understand that there are no clear steps to avoiding some causes of death for individuals living with dementia. However, support and close supervision can help prevent falls, bedsores, and even certain infections.
Consult with a doctor to consider a course of action that provides the best quality of life for your loved one. If you’ve reached a point where you recognize you need additional help caring for them, the following care options are a good place to start.
In-home care for dementia can be a good way to supplement the care that family caregivers are already providing. Many in-home care providers have both experience and training to work with people living with dementia. They can provide assistance with personal care and offer engaging activities, while at the same time giving family caregivers a much-needed break.
If caring for your loved one at home has become overwhelming, memory care is an option that provides support for the entire family. Memory care communities provide 24-hour care and supervision. Many communities also offer a secure environment with activities that aim to keep your loved one physically and mentally engaged.
Hospice and palliative care
The primary goal of hospice and palliative care is to provide a higher quality of life for the patient. Many of the infections that can lead to the death of a person living with dementia are treatable. However, when reviewing treatments for a person with dementia, it’s important to consider their quality of life. In the late stage of dementia, the side effects of many drug therapies can outweigh the benefits, as individuals can be frail and infections often return.
Managing pain and other symptoms helps a patient remain comfortable. Hospice teams can also provide helpful suggestions to family and friends on how they can continue to connect with their loved one during the late stages of dementia. Hospice and palliative care also benefit families by offering caregiving assistance and emotional support.
Although dementia progresses slowly, care and end-of-life wishes can be a challenge to discuss when a person is first diagnosed. However, exploring in-home care, memory care, and hospice before the individual can no longer make important decisions is essential, says the National Institute on Aging. AgingCare offers several tools and resources, including an online caregiver forum, to help families connect with others who share similar experiences.
What Is Dementia? Symptoms, Types, and Diagnosis (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-is-dementia)
Infections and dementia (https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-prevention/infections-and-dementia)
End-of-Life Care for People with Dementia (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/end-life-care-people-dementia)