Dementia is not a disease or illness in itself. It is in fact a symptom of other medical conditions. It indicates that something has damaged the brain to the extent that cognitive ability is impaired – memory, reasoning and thinking, and can result in dementia seizures. This can lead to other dementia related problems, such as communication difficulties and personality changes.
Some medical conditions that lead to dementia can be treated, to stop dementia progressing, for example, infections (antibiotics), hypothyroidism (thyroid replacement), severe deficiencies in vitamin B12 (supplements) and Type 1 diabetes (appropriate protocols).
However, the majority of the diseases and traumas that damage brain cells and therefore impact on cognitive abilities are irreversible.
There are currently no disease-modifying drugs available to stop or repair these leading causes of dementia. However, the pharmaceutical industry spends tens of millions of dollars each year trying to find protocols that successfully pass through human trials.
Dementia is linked in public consciousness with old age. Though it is substantially more common in people aged over 65, it can occur much earlier too.
Approximately two-thirds of people diagnosed with dementia have Alzheimer’s Disease. It currently affects around 5.5 million adults in the USA, but numbers are rising.
In most cases of Alzheimer’s symptoms first appear in the mid-60s, but 4% of cases are classed as young-onset Alzheimer’s, affecting people in their 40s, 50s and early 60s.
The second most common cause of dementia is vascular damage. As the name implies, it originates from an interruption in the flow of blood (and therefore oxygen) to the brain, such as a stroke.
Other medical conditions that impact on cognitive abilities include Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s Disease and Frontotemporal dementia (Pick's disease). There are other illnesses that can result in dementia symptoms, but they are relatively uncommon.
It is possible to have a combination of these conditions, and it is not always easy to distinguish between them.
As dementia is a symptom of damage to the brain, it could be assumed that there is a connection between that and epileptic seizures – a surge of electrical activity in brain cells caused by complex chemical changes which result in dementia seizures.
The conditions that cause dementia are still largely a mystery to medical scientists, not least as the brain is a highly complex organ. The equipment and processes to study live subjects are still in their infancy.
There is evidence that suggests epileptic seizures happen in people with dementia more often than they do with relatively healthy people of the same age. This is largely confined to those with Alzheimer’s.
There is an important distinction here though – dementia does not in itself lead to seizures. However, the conditions that create dementia as their primary symptom (especially Alzheimer’s) may in addition cause seizures.
It is believed that around 10 to 22% people with Alzheimer’s have at least one unprovoked seizure, usually at later stages of this degenerative disease.
A great deal more research is required to give a definitive answer to this question – as with many other aspects of dementia-causing conditions.
However, it is believed that Alzheimer’s involves the production of abnormal levels of a protein called beta amyloid. Plaques and tangles of this and other chemical compounds gather, destroying healthy brain cells.
Current thinking is that beta amyloid can also trigger seizures in people with this diagnosis. This is sometimes referred to a 'cortical excitability' which means the accumulated proteins over-stimulate cells in the brain.
If this is the cause, it would explain why seizures are more likely to occur in people with Alzheimer’s rather than other dementia-related illnesses. They have different chemical and neurological pathologies.
Studies have shown that seizures in individuals with Alzheimer’s occur more often in people who have experienced early onset, who are in advanced stages of the disease, and in people thought to have a genetic predisposition for developing the condition.
One of the less common causes of dementia is damage to the front and sides of the brain (frontal and temporal lobes).
This rare condition is sometimes referred to as Pick's disease, and it is even more challenging to diagnose and study. Its cause is unknown. Some scientists believe that it results in a buildup of protein – including tau proteins – which cause parts of the brain to shrink.
Seizures can be one of the first symptoms of Frontotemporal dementia.
As mentioned, dementia is a symptom that can appear alongside seizures, especially in people with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. They are not directly linked.
One of the important footnotes to this, is that people in the advanced stages of the disease are often elderly, and may have other medical conditions that lead to seizures. This confuses the causes of epileptic incidents in people suffering from dementia.
It is why it is vital that seizures in people with dementia should not be dismissed as a progression of their brain damage. If someone with dementia has a seizure it is important for them to undergo thorough testing, to see if some other underlying condition is involved.