HIV/AIDS affects many of the body's organ systems, including the brain and nervous system. Most people don't know that HIV infection actually makes its way to the brain early in the disease process. HIV encephalopathy is an infection that spreads throughout the brain. It is one cause of dementia in people infected with HIV. The greater the spread of infection in the brain, the worse the dementia symptoms become.
AIDS dementia is also called AIDS dementia complex or HIV-associated dementia. It is a serious consequence of HIV infection and is typically seen in advanced stages of the disease.
The following symptoms are among those seen with AIDS-related dementia:
Encephalitis, a condition in which the membranes of the brain and spinal column swell
Loss of memory
Reduced ability to think clearly, a condition called cognitive impairment
Difficulty concentrating or staying focused
Difficulty speaking clearly or accurately
Apathy or lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities
Gradual loss of motor skills, or reduced coordination
The gradual loss of mental clarity and physical coordination can seriously reduce quality of life. Without treatment, AIDS-related dementia can be fatal.
If you notice changes in your ability to speak, focus, or concentrate, talk with your health care provider. These symptoms are common to other conditions, including other infections, depression, and nutritional deficiencies. Unusual shifts in mood or emotions and changes in social behavior also require a conversation with a doctor. Best results are achieved with early diagnosis and treatment.
An exam may include:
Discussion of symptoms
Discussion of lifestyle choices, such as alcohol or drug use
Basic tests of physical abilities or movement
Spinal fluid test
Treatment typically includes:
Antiretroviral therapy. This is aggressive medical treatment aimed at reducing the amount of AIDS virus in the body. It also can help ease dementia symptoms.
Substance or alcohol abuse counseling. People with HIV who abuse drugs or alcohol can have more severe dementia symptoms.
Prescription medications. In addition to other medications you take for AIDS symptoms, your doctor may recommend antidepressants, antipsychotics, or stimulants. Deciding which one will be prescribed will depend on what may be causing your dementia.
Lifestyle changes. Regular exercise and a structured routine will help to manage AIDS dementia. Writing lists can help you stay organized and remember important details. A neurologist may recommend working with a special therapist who can help you learn to better manage daily life.
Coping strategies. If dementia symptoms become severe, you may need help at home. A skilled caregiver can provide this service.
People who are using highly active antiretroviral therapy, known as HAART, are less likely to develop AIDS-related dementia. Experts think this may be because these drugs help maintain the overall immune system. A milder form of cognitive impairment, called HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder, or HAND, may still occur, though.