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What Is It Like to Die of Dementia?


Updated May 30, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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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 will lead to death. Alzheimer's disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. What can you expect at the end of life if you or a loved one has dementia?

Dementia is a progressive disease that affects the brain. Early stages of dementia may show up as memory problems, confusion, and sundowning. As dementia progresses, changes are seen in the basic ways the brain functions. A patient's personality changes, basic motor functions are impaired, and the ability to communicate decreases.

Learn more about the Various Types and Causes of Dementia

Late-Stage Dementia Symptoms

A person with dementia may follow a fairly predictable pattern of decline through the seven stages of dementia. Once dementia has progressed to late-stage, death can generally be expected in 6 months to 1 year. 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, causing 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 one's 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 real risks when an individual with dementia can no longer eat safely and 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 care to an individual in their own home environment and manage all distressing symptoms without prolonging an inevitable death.

Read more about Palliative Care for Dementia

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