Why some dementia patients steal food from others

Does dementia cause someone to steal food from someone else’s plate or obsessively eat foreign food and even objects?

A team of researchers from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) aimed to better understand the abnormal eating behaviors commonly associated with the disease. Their findings, published in the journal Neurocase , could also have implications for strange eating patterns in healthy people.

These behaviors are problematic, of course, socially, but also with respect to the health of the patients, since they tend to gain weight. Some people lose weight because they eat a limited variety of foods obsessively. The origin of eating abnormalities in frontotemporal dementia is likely due to many factors. It can involve an alteration of the nervous system, characterized by an altered evaluation of body signals, such as hunger, satiety and appetite.

For the study, Aiello and his team examined a large body of research on how frontotemporal dementia, a broad term for conditions resulting from progressive degeneration of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, affects patients. These areas of the brain play an important role in decision making, behavior control, emotions, and language. And they found a link within the brain areas that regulates the interactions between the amount of food consumed and the energy it takes to burn calories. They suspect that damage to the hypothalamus , the region responsible for hunger, thirst, energy, sleep, and mood, may be the leading cause of abnormal eating behaviors.

In patients who eat objects, for example, there may be a problem recognizing the object and its function.

In one case in 2006, a woman diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia only ate bananas and glasses of milk. Only when the doctor died was he able to confirm that the disease was the underlying cause of his diet. While some patients like this woman may become obsessed with one type of food, others may steal food from someone else’s plate or confuse the purpose of certain foods, such as mixing wine for salad dressing.

All these mechanisms are interesting to understand the disease and create optimal treatments to counteract the symptoms. At the same time, they reveal abnormalities that may be present, albeit at varying intensities, in healthy people with irregular eating habits. This could also be helpful in understanding abnormal eating behavior in healthy people.

Nerve cell damage caused by frontotemproal dementia can also lead to deterioration in both behavior and personality, along with some of the unusual eating patterns or preferences.

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