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What is Dementia?

DementiaThe term dementia refers to a severe loss of mental abilities that result in marked changes in memory, personality, behavior and thinking abilities. Dementia is caused by an underlying disease or accident that damages brain tissue resulting in impaired brain functioning. Once brain tissue is damaged, there is no way to recover it, and those diagnosed will suffer a progressive cognitive decline. Research has identified specific types of dementia, each of which has a different course of treatment. About 10 percent of individuals age 65 and older are living with a form of dementia.

Common Symptoms of Dementia

  • Forgetfulness (names, dates, people, events, direction, placement/location of objects)
  • Confusion (inability to follow instructions, difficulty in concentrating)
  • Difficulty in coping with activities of daily living (dressing, cooking, bathing, managing finances)
  • Mood change (unstable mood, withdrawn, angry, mistrustful, lack of interest in activities)

Some individuals exhibit symptoms of dementia that are caused by an underlying medical condition and are considered reversible. These symptoms may be caused from thyroid problems, alcoholism, vitamin and mineral deficiency, reaction to medications and infection. Once the condition is treated, the symptoms will remit. Your doctor may recommend testing in order to provide an accurate diagnosis.

Types of Dementia

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's Disease is the leading cause of dementia in America, affecting about 4.5 million Americans. Alzheimer's causes global death of brain tissue resulting in memory loss (the most prominent symptom). The onset is gradual with an increase in symptoms over a period of years. Typical symptoms include memory loss (short term to long term), disorientation, loss of language abilities and ability to recognize objects or people, impaired judgment and executive function. Behavioral and mood changes are prevalent such as personality changes, irritability, anxiety, depression, delusions, paranoia, hallucinations, aggression and wandering.

Having a family history of Alzheimer's is a major risk factor for developing the disease. There is no cure, however, several medications are available that may slow the progression of the disease, stabilize symptoms and reduce behavioral symptoms.

Vascular Dementia/Multi-Infarct Dementia

Individuals who have suffered a stroke (infarct) will have impaired functioning in correlation with the area of the brain that was damaged from the stroke. They may present with loss of thinking abilities, disorientation and confusion, muscular control or sensation, speech difficulties and/or memory impairment. Although there is no cure, a physician may treat the underlying vascular disease with the hope of preventing future strokes. This is often done by medication to normalize blood pressure and cholesterol levels, quitting smoking and, at times, routine aspirin doses.

Picks Disease/Frontal-Temporal Dementia

This is a rare form of dementia which specifically affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. It is more common in women and the average onset is between ages 40 to 60. This disease presents with symptoms that can include loss of language abilities, ability to recognize objects or people, skilled movement abilities, inhibition, as well as behavioral and personality changes. The exact cause is unknown and treatment may include medications to manage symptoms.

Lewy Body Disease

This disease is receiving increased attention over the past few years. Individuals present with combined symptoms of both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease which may include visual hallucinations and impaired attention and alertness. Prognosis is poor and only the symptoms can be treated.

Other Forms of Dementia

Other diseases that can cause dementia include normal pressure hydrocephalus, Parkinson's Disease, Huntington's Disease and brain injury.

Diagnosing Dementia

There is no single diagnostic test for dementia. To obtain a concrete diagnosis, an autopsy and evaluation of brain tissue is needed upon death. Therefore, most  physicians diagnose the type of dementia by relying on symptoms and medical history. Sometimes, a CT scan of the brain and EEG are helpful in aiding diagnosis. Blood tests may be necessary to rule out reversible causes of dementia.

Support Groups

Contact the Commission on Aging in your county to inquire about Alzheimer's Support Group for individuals and families.