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What is Dementia?

Learn about Dementia

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Updated March 10, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

A Senior Citizen Concerned about Dementia

The Risk of Dementia Increases with Age

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Dementia is the impairment of brain functioning that can be caused by diseases affecting the brain. Dementia usually occurs in people aged sixty years or older. In fact, the risk for dementia increases as we age. Symptoms of dementia include impaired memory, difficulty with thinking skills, language, poor judgment, and behavioral problems. In most cases, dementia is incurable and cannot be reversed. Conditions that commonly involve dementia include Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, and brain infections.

Although dementia, in most cases is incurable and non-reversible, there are certain conditions where it can be prevented from worsening or reversed if it is discovered quickly, and treatment is provided. For example, in the instance of a brain injury, comprehensive and early therapy can improve patient outcomes and reduce the impact of the injury on everyday functioning. The impact of Brain tumors, affects of alcohol and substance abuse can also be remediated to some degree with appropriate, timely medical intervention.

In many instances, dementia begins with signs of forgetfulness. Difficulty using language, remembering information, perceiving visual information, and emotional and behavioral changes may follow. Thinking skills such as doing everyday math often become difficult as dementia progresses.

It is important to remember that many of these problems, if only minimally problematic, can be normal as we age. However, as the problems become more of an issue impacting daily life, dementia may be a possibility.

Some of the early signs of possible dementia may involve difficulty doing things that used to be routine or easy such as balancing a checkbook, getting lost on the way to familiar places, losing objects, significant changes in personality, difficulty with social skills, and loss of interest in activities one used to enjoy.

Dementia can become worse to the point of causing difficulty with safely and appropriately taking care of oneself. People with advancing dementia may have difficulty safely preparing meals, dressing appropriately for the weather, and driving safely. They may forget medications, doctor’s appointments, and have difficulty reading and writing. Hallucinations, being argumentative, and becoming violent are also possible.

When dementia becomes severe, sufferers may be unable to independently perform the tasks necessary for daily living, be unable to recognize their family members, and understand and use language. People with dementia may also suffer incontinence and other motor problems such as swallowing.

If you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing early signs of dementia, it is important to seek the care of your physician who can perform an appropriate exam and determine if dementia is a possible cause of your symptoms. Exams are likely to include a thorough physical, neurological, and mental status exam. Other testing may be performed to determine the possible causes of your symptoms. Your doctor will want to rule out conditions such as anemia, intoxication from medications, severe depression, vitamin deficiencies or other conditions that can cause symptoms that may mimic dementia.

Treatment for dementia depends on what the identified cause is. Any areas of concern identified should be addressed. For example, medications may be prescribed or changed, a hospital stay may be involved, physical, occupational, or speech therapy may be included in a treatment plan. Depending on the degree of need, assisted living may be recommended.

Although some types of dementia are not preventable, making healthy lifestyle choices can decrease your risk of some types of dementia such as vascular dementia. Not smoking, eating a healthy, low-fat diet, getting appropriate treatment for high blood pressure and diabetes, getting regular exercise may reduce your risk of vascular dementia.

"Please note this document has not been medically reviewed, and the information may not be medically accurate."

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