Dementia and HIV, what you should know
Forgetting names, dates or the address where you live are just some of the manifestations of dementia. It is usually thought that this disorder is a natural part of aging, however, it is not normal and can even appear in young people as an affectation caused by HIV.
In the eighties, when the first cases of AIDS appeared and there was no treatment capable of stopping HIV, the various damages that the virus causes in the body were documented. One of the clearest was the involvement of the brain, so much so that the term “AIDS-associated dementia” was coined, which was observed in people diagnosed with this syndrome, who were mostly young.
What is dementia?
In medical terms, dementia is defined as a slow, progressive decline in mental function, including memory, thinking, judgment, and the ability to learn.
Although dementia primarily affects memory, manifestations of this cognitive disorder can include problems using language, personality changes, disorientation, and difficulty performing activities that were previously performed, some as simple as dressing or grooming.
The problem comes on gradually and can progress so much that the person becomes unable to fend for himself. It must be reiterated that dementia is not normal, but rather a medical problem (there are very old people who do not have dementia), therefore it is necessary to also address it in people with HIV, regardless of their age.
Your relationship with HIV
According to what has been studied, HIV affects the brain with mechanisms that generate neurotoxic factors, which would lead to the death of neurons. This would cause an accelerated neurodegeneration, which is expressed with memory loss, mental retardation, difficulty walking and depression, as the most common symptoms.
The various neurological disorders resulting from HIV infection (such as dementia) can present at any stage of the infection, although they are clearer if it has progressed to the stage of AIDS. It must be remembered that well-carried antiretroviral treatment prevents a person with HIV from developing AIDS, so these drugs are essential to prevent serious complications caused by the virus.
HIV-associated dementia is identified by what doctors call a characteristic triad, that is, three elements that raise suspicion of this problem: cognitive impairment (such as memory loss and learning problems), behavior changes, and motor dysfunction (problems moving normally).
It is important to know that not all memory impairment is a symptom of dementia. For example, as you get older, it’s normal to forget a payment date or lose your car keys. These forgetfulness may be part of aging, but they could also occur in people with depression or disorders such as attention deficit. Dementia progressively increases until it erases fundamental data from memory such as the home address or the current month.
For this reason, if you live with HIV, it is important that any change in this regard that you or the people around you notice, you discuss with your health team. There are some tests, such as the International HIV Dementia Scale, which are a first step in identifying the problem.
Treatment is important
Scientific research has shown that, once dementia has occurred, antiretroviral treatment is not enough, although it can help, above all, to reverse an AIDS condition. To treat the cognitive problem there are other medications called neuro protectors, which do not cure dementia, but they can delay the deterioration process to prolong the quality of life.
The most important thing of all is that, if you have received an HIV diagnosis, start antiretroviral treatment as soon as possible and do not suspend it. If you haven’t started it yet or want to resume it, come to AHF Latin America and the Caribbean and we’ll help you figure it out. We are in 11 countries in the region.