Dementia is not merely a problem of memory; memory loss alone does not mean you have dementia. Additional mental and behavioral problems often affect people who have dementia, and may greatly affect quality of life.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is not a disease itself, but rather a group of symptoms that are caused by various diseases or conditions. Dementia is the loss of mental functions such as thinking, memory and reasoning that is severe enough to interfere with a person's daily functioning. This loss in brain functioning is beyond what might be expected from normal aging.
Dementia may be the result of a brain injury, or it may be more progressive. More progressive dementia means the person continues to experience worsening symptoms. The two most common forms of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Neither is a “curable” disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that attacks the brain, slowly killing brain cells. About 60 percent of all dementia cases are Alzheimer’s cases. Generally, it begins with difficulty remembering recent events and doing familiar daily tasks and activities. Symptoms gradually worsen until many patients experience a total loss of function.
Vascular dementia results from small strokes or changes in the brain’s blood supply that kill brain tissue. A doctor may order a CT scan or MRI to help diagnose vascular dementia. The results of these tests will indicate “dead spots” or areas of infarct. A common cause of vascular dementia is high blood pressure. Many symptoms of vascular dementia may be similar to those of Alzheimer’s. However, unlike Alzheimer’s, symptoms of vascular dementia tend to appear quickly. The severity of vascular dementia may worsen as more strokes occur and cause more brain tissue to be destroyed. Specific symptoms depend upon which areas of the brain are damaged. Damage in one area of the brain may cause memory problems, while damage in another area may affect a patient’s behavior or personality.
In some cases, people suffering from the condition may need to eventually reside in a long-term care facility where they can receive 24/7 care.
What are the Symptoms of Dementia?
Dementia symptoms vary depending on the cause, but common signs and symptoms include:
- Confusion, starting with mild confusion then total disorientation
- Asking the same question repeatedly
- Trouble finding the correct term or word
- Impaired judgment
- Becoming lost in familiar places
- Difficulty with anxiety and paranoia
- Not knowing the current month or year
- A change from being mild mannered to irritable or even hostile
- Trouble finishing thoughts
- Trouble following directions or notes
- Trouble staying with a chore or job
- Losing concept of time or confusing night and day
- Neglecting personal safety, hygiene and nutrition
- Loss of ability to dress self correctly, then unable to dress self at all
- Unable to identify loved ones from strangers
- Unable to talk in an understandable manner, then loss of speech altogether
- Unable to toilet self
- Unable to feed self or walk
What Causes Dementia?
- Diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's
- Toxic reactions and drug use
- Infections that affect the brain
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Head Injuries
- Certain illnesses that do not occur in the brain, such as kidney or liver disease
A thorough evaluation is important to determine the cause of the dementia. In some cases, dementia is treatable and reversible.
When Should Someone With Dementia See a Doctor?
See a doctor if you or a loved one experiences memory problems or other dementia symptoms. Some treatable medical conditions can cause dementia symptoms, so it's important that a doctor determine the underlying cause.
Alzheimer's disease and several other types of dementia worsen over time. Early diagnosis gives you time to plan for the future while you can participate in making decisions. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is usually confirmed with tests that evaluate behavior and thinking abilities, often followed by a brain scan.