Dementia is the gradual deterioration of mental functioning, such as concentration, memory, and judgment, which affects a person’s ability to perform normal daily activities.
Who gets it?
Dementia occurs primarily in people who are over the age of 65, or in those with an injury or disease that affects brain function. While dementia is most commonly seen in the elderly, it is not a normal consequence of the aging process.
What causes it?
Dementia is caused by the death of brain cells. Brain cells can be destroyed by brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, or strokes (called vascular or multi-infarct dementia), which decrease blood flow to the brain. Lewy body dementia is another common cause attributed to changes in brain tissue. Other causes can include AIDS, high fever, dehydration, hydrocephalus, systemic lupus erythematosus, Lyme disease, long-term drug or alcohol abuse, vitamin deficiencies/poor nutrition, hypothyroidism or hypercalcemia, multiple sclerosis, brain tumor, or diseases such as Pick’s, Parkinson's, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, or Huntington's. Dementia can also result from a head injury that causes hemorrhaging in the brain or a reaction to a medication.
What are the symptoms?
In most cases, the symptoms of dementia occur gradually, over a period of years. Symptoms of dementia caused by injury or stroke occur more abruptly. Difficulties often begin with memory, progressing from simple forgetfulness to the inability to remember directions, recent events, and familiar faces and names. Other symptoms include difficulty with spoken communication, personality changes, problems with abstract thinking, poor personal hygiene, trouble sleeping, and poor judgment and decision making. Dementia is extremely frustrating for the patient, especially in the early stages when he or she is aware of the deficiencies it causes. People with dementia are likely to lash out at those around them, either out of frustration or because their difficulty with understanding makes them misinterpret the actions of others. They become extremely confused and anxious when in unfamiliar surroundings or with any change in routine. They may begin a task, such as cooking, then wander away aimlessly and completely forget what they had been doing. Dementia is often accompanied by depression and delirium, which is characterized by an inability to pay attention, fluctuating consciousness, hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. People in advanced stages of dementia lose all control of bodily functions and are completely dependent upon others.
How is it diagnosed?
Dementia is diagnosed through a study of the patient’s medical history and a complete physical and neurological exam. The doctor will speak with those close to the patient to document a pattern of behavior. He or she will also evaluate the patient’s mental functioning with tests of mental status, such as those that require the patient to recall words, lists of objects, names of objects, and recent events. Diagnostic tests, such as blood tests, x-rays, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), or computed tomography (CT) scans, can help determine the cause of the dementia.
What is the treatment?
In some instances, treating the cause of dementia may successfully reverse some or all of the symptoms. This is the case when the cause is related to a vitamin/nutritional deficiency, tumor, alcohol or drug abuse, reaction to a medication, or hormonal disorder. When dementia is related to an irreversible destruction of brain tissue, such as with Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, or multiple strokes, treatment involves improving the patient’s quality of life as much as possible. This includes maintaining a stable, safe, supportive environment and providing constant supervision. While this may be done in the home, people in the advanced stages of dementia may require round-the-clock care in a long-term healthcare facility. It is important to provide the patient with structured activities and avoid disruptions to his or her daily routine. Many patients enjoy therapeutic activities, such as crafts or games, designed specifically for people with dementia. Some medications, such as donepezil and tacrine, have been effective in improving the mental functions of those in the beginning stages of dementia. Patients with hallucinations and delusions may also be treated with antipsychotic drugs, while antidepressant medications are used to treat depression.
There is currently no known way to prevent dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease. You can decrease your risk of dementia associated with stroke by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, following a heart-healthy diet, and controlling high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Healthy lifestyles, including not smoking and not abusing drugs and alcohol, go a long way in keeping most people in good health. Caring for a person with dementia is stressful. It is important to learn all you can about the disease, seek the help of support groups, and find a responsible caregiver who can give you a break when needed. There are daycare programs specifically designed for patients with dementia that are good for the patient and the family.
This information has been designed as a comprehensive and quick reference guide written by our health care reviewers. The health information written by our authors is intended to be a supplement to the care provided by your physician. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.