Severe Cognitive Impairment: Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about some of the symptoms and causes of severe cognitive impairment, which seriously impacts our ability to think, reason, and even take care of ourselves.

Severe Cognitive Impairment

We've all had trouble remembering things from time to time. Maybe we've left home without our wallet or left our keys in the car. Normal forgetfulness is really nothing to worry about. But sometimes, this forgetfulness is something more serious. When individuals suffer from cognitive impairment, symptoms can include forgetting people's names and faces, having trouble remembering words, having problems doing routine tasks like cooking, and experiencing uncharacteristic changes in mood and behavior. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of 2011, about 16 million Americans suffer from some type of cognitive impairment.

In more severe cases, cognitive impairment is not simply forgetting people's names, and the symptoms progress to the point that it becomes difficult to live alone or take care of oneself. People with severe cognitive impairment have a very hard time remembering things, making decisions, concentrating, or learning. Patients with severe impairment might have difficulty feeding themselves or swallowing, which can be life-threatening. Cognitive impairment does not have a single cause, but rather could be the result of a number of different conditions. Let's talk about those now.

Causes of Severe Cognitive Impairment

Dementia is one cause of cognitive impairment. It is not really a disease itself. Instead, it is a collection of symptoms that can impact mental ability. Dementia can be brought on by illness, injury to the brain, or a stroke. Dementia is often seen in patients with Alzheimer's disease, which is a progressive (meaning, it keeps worsening over time) brain disease that destroys healthy brain cells that are responsible for things like memory. This is why Alzheimer's patients have such a hard time remembering names and faces.

Vascular dementia is a form of dementia that occurs after a patient has a stroke, which happens when we don't have enough blood flowing to our brain. This causes damage to our brain cells, which leads to cognitive impairment. Huntington's disease can also cause cognitive impairment and changes in brain function. It's caused by a defective gene that some people have, and it is characterized by symptoms like difficulty thinking and reasoning, movement disorders, and depression.

From impaired memory to difficulty communicating, the symptoms associated with many types of dementia tend to grow over time. Age is also related to cognitive impairment. As we get older, most of us will experience some decline in our cognitive abilities.

Treatment for Severe Cognitive Impairment

While diseases like Huntington's do not yet have a cure, there are ways to treat cognitive impairment. In cases where age is the primary factor, lifestyle change can help. For example, keeping your mind active, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise can all help ease symptoms of cognitive impairment and prevent it from becoming too severe. A diet low in saturated fat and sugars can help improve cognitive function.

Some medications are available that can help with certain forms of cognitive impairment. For example, there are some medications that can reduce symptoms of memory loss in patients with Alzheimer's, at least for a short time. Still, these medications don't stop the overall progression of the disease, and they don't stop the damage caused to the brain.

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