What is it Like to Die of Dementia?

Puzzle woman with missing piece
Can you die from Alzheimer's disease or dementia?. Photo © Andrew Bret Wallis/Stone/Getty Images

Question: What Is It Like to Die of Dementia?

Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia are cruel diseases that progress over time and eventually lead to death. As of 2015, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Can you die from dementia? What can you expect at the end of life if you or a loved one has dementia?

Answer: Dementia is a progressive disease that affects the brain.

Early stages of dementia might show up as memory problems, confusion and sundowning. As dementia progresses, changes are seen in the basic ways in which the brain functions. A patient's personality changes, basic motor functions are impaired, and their ability to communicate decreases.

Learn more about the Various Types and Causes of Dementia

Late-Stage Dementia Symptoms

A person with dementia might follow a fairly predictable pattern of decline through the seven stages of dementia. Once dementia has progressed to late-stage, however, death can generally be expected in 6 to 12 months. Symptoms of late-stage dementia include:

  • Increased incidence of infections, such as urinary-tract infections or pneumonia
  • Impaired motor functions, including difficulty walking and moving, which causes the individual to be bed- or chair-bound
  • Incontinence of bowel and bladder, leading to full dependence on others for toileting and hygiene
  • Loss of the ability to communicate through words
  • Difficulty swallowing and eating, leading to weight loss and aspiration pneumonia
  • Loss of facial expression, including the ability to smile
  • Eventual inability to sit up or hold up their head without assistance.

Read more about The Seven Stages of Alzheimer's

Death from Late-Stage Dementia

Many individuals with late-stage dementia die of a medical complication, such as pneumonia or another infection. However, dementia itself can be fatal. General wasting, malnutrition and dehydration are genuine risks when an individual with dementia can no longer eat safely and/or move independently.

Palliative Care for Late-Stage Dementia

Palliative care is available and highly encouraged for individuals with late-stage dementia. Hospice care, in particular, can provide assistance to an individual in their own home environment and manage all of the distressing symptoms without prolonging his or her inevitable death.

Read more about Palliative Care for Dementia

Edited and updated by Chris Raymond, February 17, 2016.

Sources:

"2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures." Alzheimer's Association. Retrieved February 16, 2016. https://www.alz.org/facts/downloads/facts_figures_2015.pdf

Continue Reading