Dementia and Complications

Dementia can affect the functioning of many body systems and, therefore, the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Dementia may lead to problems such as:

  • Inadequate nutrition. Nearly everyone who has dementia will at some point reduce or stop eating and drinking. Often, advanced dementia causes people to lose control of the muscles used to chew and swallow, putting them at risk of choking or aspirating food into their lungs. If this happens, it can block breathing and cause pneumonia. People with advanced dementia also lose the feeling of hunger and, with it, the desire to eat. Depression, side effects of medications, constipation and other conditions such as infections also can decrease a person’s interest in food.
  • Reduced hygiene. In the moderate to severe stages of dementia, you lose the ability to independently complete daily living tasks. You may no longer be able to bathe, dress, brush your teeth and go to the toilet on your own.
  • Difficulty taking medications. Because a person’s memory is affected, remembering to take the correct amount of medications at the right time can be challenging.
  • Deterioration of emotional health. Dementia changes behaviors and personality. Some of the changes may be caused by the actual deterioration happening in a person’s brain, while other behavioral and personality changes may be reactions to the emotional challenges of coping with the deterioration changes. Dementia may lead to depression, aggression, confusion, frustration, anxiety, a lack of inhibition and disorientation.
  • Difficulty communicating. As dementia progresses, the ability to remember the names of people and things may be lost. This makes communication difficult at all levels, whether to let a caregiver know what you need and how you feel or simply to communicate socially. Difficulty communicating can lead to feelings of agitation, isolation and depression.
  • Delirium. This state is characterized by a decline in attention, awareness and mental clarity. Delirium is common in people with dementia, especially when admitted to the hospital. It appears that the sudden change in surroundings, activity level and other routines may be the cause.
  • Problems sleeping. Disruption of the normal sleep-wake cycle — being up at night and sleeping during the day — is very common. Insomnia is another common complication, as are restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea, which also can interfere with sleep.
  • Personal safety challenges. Because of a reduced capacity for decision making and problem-solving, some day-to-day situations can present safety issues for people with dementia. These include driving, cooking, falling and negotiating obstacles.

Written by By Mayo Clinic staff
© 2012 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research