Dementia is a progressive condition that worsens over time. Fortunately, with today’s medical advances, dementia patients are living longer and are better able to manage their symptoms. Eventually, people with dementia will need help with personal care and daily living. Still, no matter how good their quality of life can be, their life expectancy is usually much shorter than it would be without dementia. Life expectancy for someone living with dementia can range from ten years for someone diagnosed early with Stage 3 dementia to 2.5 years for someone living with Stage 7 dementia.
Understanding the stages of dementia helps families and loved ones prepare for what’s to come. Though the life expectancy for later-stage dementia is often relatively short, there are approaches, medications, and therapies that can help to prolong the time leading up to it.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms and proceeding with the most appropriate care and treatment for the specific stage may help individuals, families, and caregivers make the most of the time left.
What is the Life Expectancy when Dementia is Present?
How long a person can live with dementia depends on many factors. The type of dementia, the person’s age, physical condition, and the dementia stage at diagnosis are variables that influence life expectancy.
As mentioned above, later-stage dementia has a fairly short life expectancy, sometimes as little as two years. However, if diagnosed early, a person can live ten years or more before there is a significant cognitive decline.
For example, suppose a person is diagnosed with very mild cognitive decline (Stage 2). In that case, they can usually carry on for many years before the disease progresses—assuming suggested lifestyle changes are made and treatments introduced to help improve symptoms and quality of life.
Those with Stage 3 (mild) cognitive decline may remain in this stage for two to seven years and have approximately ten years of life expectancy.
Stage 4 is described as moderate cognitive decline, which can extend for up to three years with a life expectancy of three to eight years.
Stage 5 is moderately severe cognitive decline and can last 1-1/2 years with a life expectancy of up to 6-1/2 years.
Stage 6, severe cognitive decline, may last 2-1/2 years and has a life expectancy of four years or less.
Stage 7 is the highest level of cognitive decline and could last up to 2-1/2 years, which is the same as the life expectancy when diagnosed at this stage.
Please note that the abovementioned statistics are generalizations based on the stage of cognitive decline at the time of diagnosis. Individual experiences can be vastly different, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.
Factors that Influence Dementia Life Expectancy
Many factors influence how long a person can live with dementia—as well as who is more likely to experience it. Some types of dementia are hereditary, meaning that if dementia is present in a close family member, one may be more susceptible.
However, in cases like vascular dementia, which is caused by high blood pressure and stroke, it may be preventable. Ultimately, it is critical to see your doctor regularly, monitor health conditions, and take medications or treatments as appropriate. Many cases of vascular dementia, for example, could be prevented if the individual manages their blood pressure adequately. If hypertension and stroke runs in the family, it’s always a good idea to stay on top of it, especially after age 50, when high blood pressure tends to present.
Here are some common factors that may influence life expectancy with dementia.
Advanced age is one of the most significant risk factors for dementia. The more advanced a person’s age at diagnosis, the shorter their life expectancy. This could also be because older individuals are usually diagnosed later in cognitive decline. Early-onset dementia, where the person is younger when diagnosed, is an exception as this group’s life expectancy will coincide (roughly) with the stage ranges mentioned above.
Women are more often diagnosed with cognitive decline, but they also have a better prognosis. On average, women will live 20% longer than men diagnosed at a similar stage and age.
Type of dementia
The type of dementia is the strongest and most accurate indicator of life expectancy and disease progression. Age, lifestyle, and physical condition should all be considered, as these are only general estimates:
Early onset dementia progresses quickly, and a patient’s life expectancy is usually two years less than other dementia types.
Vascular dementia, often associated with stroke, has a life expectancy of four years, on average.
Lewy body dementia has the broadest range of life expectancy, anywhere from two to 20 years.
Frontotemporal dementia, also known as Pick’s disease, up to eight years.
Alzheimer’s dementia can last eight to 12 years.
Overall health and well-being
People in generally good physical condition tend to live longer following a dementia diagnosis. In the absence of underlying conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, the better and longer a body can cope. From a psychological standpoint, the more independent, social, and functioning the person is, the longer they will survive.
Increasing and Improving Quality of Life at Different Stages of Dementia
People in the early stages of cognitive decline require less support than those with a late-stage diagnosis. However, this doesn’t mean you should do nothing. Simple lifestyle changes, maintaining a routine, staying consistent, and generally making the most of your time are important—not just for the person with dementia but also for the people around them.
Many studies have shown that engaging in meaningful, fun-filled activities can help dementia patients stay happier and reduce worry and stress. When individuals feel relaxed and comfortable, they are less likely to become depressed, confused, or combative.
Here are a few evidence-based tips to help you improve your loved one’s quality of life.
Provide a safe and comfortable environment. Your loved one may become confused about time and space. Staying consistent, keeping to a routine, and staying in the moment is easier to manage than a chaotic environment full of surprises.
Exercise can provide enormous benefits for people with cognitive decline. Physically fit people tend to stay independent longer, are better able to perform daily tasks and have a better emotional state. Exercise also improves heart health, circulation, and balance, mitigates bone density loss, and reduces the risk of falls.
Music therapy. Music is an excellent way to lighten the mood and stimulate fond memories. Some studies show that music therapy can even reduce the amount of pain medication needed. Customize the playlist according to what the individual has enjoyed in the past.
Art therapy, such as painting or making crafts, can help to reconnect the person to memories and stories from their past. Some studies show that art therapy enhances long-term memory recall and can slow the progression of dementia. Choose activities they enjoy, and they’ll feel more in control of their lives and choices.
Help them stay independent to the best of their ability. It’s only natural to want to help, but when you do everything for a person, they’ll feel like you think they are incapable. Provide just the right amount of help so they remain safe but can still accomplish what they want to do on their own. Don’t get frustrated, as your energy may cause hurt, anger, and confusion.
Staying social is one of the biggest challenges with dementia, as some individuals get frustrated and confused when they can’t follow a conversation. Regular social interaction will improve their ability to remember the people they love and may help improve overall communication. Don’t make it too complicated; stick to the familiar and prioritize people closest to the person to ensure a positive experience.
Reminiscing about past events has been shown to slow cognitive decline, stabilize behavior, and improve mood and general quality of life for dementia patients. Going through old photographs, books, audio, and video can bring memories back to the surface and engage them in storytelling.
Healthy eating and nutrition are essential to mood and overall health. Meal planning is an excellent habit to get into as it reduces stress around what to eat and when. As the disease progresses, declining motor ability might impair the person’s ability to handle cutlery, leading to embarrassment and food avoidance. Eat together, stay calm, and be reassuring. Try to choose their favorite foods as much as possible, within reason. You may also want to try switching from three more substantial meals to several smaller meals throughout the day. Staying hydrated is also vital, as dehydration can exacerbate confusion and other dementia symptoms. Avoid highly processed foods, and prioritize fruits, vegetables, and organic foods whenever possible.
Dementia has many faces and stages. Your journey will not be easy, but it’s important to remember that caregivers need care too. If you are the primary caregiver for someone with dementia, there are resources and support communities that can help. Sharing your experiences with others who have walked in your shoes may help you find new pathways to joy you hadn’t considered.
About the Author
In 2017, Dani Waxman founded RecallCue, a company driven by a mission to make a significant difference in the lives of people dealing with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) or early stages of dementia. Under his leadership, RecallCue has emerged as a pioneering digital memory aid, designed to assist not only those living with cognitive challenges but also to provide substantial support to family caregivers.
Dani's approach to product development is deeply rooted in empathy and innovation. His work at RecallCue reflects his commitment to enhancing the quality of life for individuals and families navigating the complexities of dementia care. Through RecallCue, Dani has been instrumental in bridging the gap between technology and caregiving, offering solutions that are both practical and compassionate.
As an advocate for dementia care, Dani continues to explore new avenues to support and empower those affected by cognitive impairments. His dedication to this cause is not just professional but also personal, making him a genuine and influential voice in the field of digital health solutions for dementia.