What Is Dementia?

Alzheimer's, Healthy Aging
on August 13, 2011
Think Stock

Dementia is a symptom of a number of serious memory loss diseases, including Alzheimer’s. It is estimated that about 50 percent to 80 percent of all people suffering from dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. Initial diagnosis is relatively easy, though tying dementia in to a specific disease may require additional imaging and other diagnostic testing. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “A health care provider will take a history, do a physical exam (including a neurological exam), and perform some tests of mental function called a mental status examination.”

Causes. Dementia is most often caused by diseases commonly associated with aging such as Parkinson’s, Lewy Body disease, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease and more. These diseases are often responsible for various types of damage to brain function, including abnormal growths within the brain, infection and difficulty absorbing essential nutrients in the brain. Some types of severe malnutrition may cause or exacerbate dementia, though this is rare.

Symptoms. The most obvious signs of dementia are the progressive loss of memory and adverse changes in cognitive function. Language skills, judgment, emotions and perception may be impaired. In addition, people suffering from dementia may experience depression or other mental health issues and will generally withdraw from social contact as the disease becomes more pronounced. As the condition worsens, the dementia sufferer may be unable to recognize danger from things like touching a hot stove or walking in front of moving cars, and may be unable to play familiar games or follow the story in a book or movie.

Management. The treatment options that are available with dementia will depend largely on the cause and severity. At one time, dementia was considered inevitable and irreversible. Now, for many causes, it’s no longer inevitable. We now know that only a small percentage of the population actually gets dementia, and medical treatments are available that may delay the progression of the disease. Dementia brought on by issues such as brain tumors may be able to be halted if the tumor can safely be removed. It is essential to seek medical care as soon as warning signs of dementia appear, since damage already done generally cannot be repaired.