Dementia is the broad term for deterioration in the brain that tends to occur with age. It encompasses conditions like Alzheimer's disease, and tends to be something that is diagnosed based on symptoms relating to memory, perception and general mental faculties.
However, as the brain is affected by dementia, various physical problems also begin to occur, as the brain is no longer able to control the body as effectively. That said, as there are also stronger risks in the elderly of other problems that cause mobility issues (such as stroke, arthritis and osteoporosis), it is not always the case that problems relating to mobility in the elderly are fully attributable to dementia itself.
There are, though, some mobility problems that are common in dementia patients when none of these other conditions are present. Here we take a look at four of them.
1. Slowness of movement
When someone has dementia, it is more difficult for them to control their movements, and this usually leads to them moving more slowly. This is a form of what doctors call Parkinsonism. This is related to the condition Parkinson's Disease, however, it is a separate thing and those exhibiting Parkinsonism symptoms do not necessarily have Parkinson's itself.
Examples of the ways you may see someone with dementia moving more slowly are that they will tend to take shorter steps, taking a longer time to walk, and they will turn around using a series of small, shuffling movements instead of pivoting on their feet as before.
Slowness of movement can be frustrating for the patient, and can make it difficult for them to move around their own home because things like stairs can become a problem. Aids like canes, walking sticks and stairlifts can become useful at this time. Though if this is the only real symptom, then it is usually perfectly safe for the patient to remain in their own home.
Dementia can cause the sufferer to become less coordinated and have general problems with balance. This means they are more likely to fall over.
Falls can lead to serious injury in senior citizens, because bones tend to be more prone to breakage and where an injury occurs, it usually takes longer to heal.
The increased risk of falling due to balance issues combined with the general reduction in movement speed can cause a dementia patient not to feel very mobile at all. And where this becomes a severe problem, they may need to use a wheelchair, mobility scooter or other aid for getting around.
3. Difficulty in starting walking
A problem related to dementia known as apraxia can also lead to mobility issues in the elderly. It refers to issues with the cerebellum (an important structure within the brain) and leads to issues with the messages from the brain when someone wants to move being translated into actual movement.
One of the first signs of this often observed in dementia patients is that they have trouble starting to move. For example, starting to walk from standing still, or getting up out of a chair.
This problem can (in its early stages), sometimes be helped with sensory stimuli. Many carers have found that simply touching the arm or shoulder of the patient is enough to trigger them to start moving when they want to. Sensory stimulation like this seems to in some way trick the mind and help with the issue.
Another symptom that falls under the umbrella of Parkinson's is stiffness in the body. People who feel stiff or rigid find it hard to move naturally, and tend to adopt strange postures, and sometimes walk with a limp. Stiffness can also be the result of other conditions like arthritis, or of muscular fatigue, so this isn't always a sign of cerebral deterioration, however it is common in dementia patients.
Often, these four symptoms occur together, which can be quite debilitating for a previously able bodied person. It is important to identify whether these symptoms are indeed caused by dementia, or by other issues which would be treated in a different way. For instance, if someone is limping because they are in pain rather than because they feel stiff and slow, this would be an indicator of a different problem. These issues, when caused by dementia, can however lead to painful secondary problems, such as injuries if someone falls.
When someone is suffering from dementia and mobility related problems, it is important first of all to do everything possible to help them move as easily and comfortably as they can, such as arranging for them to have walking aids. It is also vital to keep an eye on the person who has dementia, because most symptoms have a likelihood of worsening over time and they may come to need additional help.