What is Dementia?
Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. There are several different forms of dementia, including Alzheimer disease. A person’s symptoms can vary depending on the type. Some people with dementia cannot control their emotions, and their personalities may change. Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of living.
Dementia is more common as people grow older but it is not a normal part of aging.
What are the signs and symptoms of dementia?
The symptoms of dementia can vary and may include:
- Experiencing memory loss, poor judgment, and confusion
- Difficulty speaking, understanding and expressing thoughts, or reading and writing
- Wandering and getting lost in a familiar neighborhood
- Trouble handling money responsibly and paying bills
- Repeating questions
- Using unusual words to refer to familiar objects
- Taking longer to complete normal daily tasks
- Losing interest in normal daily activities or events
- Hallucinating or experiencing delusions or paranoia
- Acting impulsively
- Not caring about other people’s feelings
- Losing balance and problems with movement
Did you know? People with intellectual and developmental disabilities can also develop dementia as they age, and recognizing their symptoms can be particularly difficult. It’s important to consider a person’s current abilities and to monitor for changes over time that could signal dementia.
What causes dementia?
The causes of Alzheimer disease and related dementias can vary, depending on the types of brain changes that may be taking place. While research has found that some changes in the brain are linked to certain forms of dementia, in most cases, the underlying causes are unknown. Rare genetic mutations may cause dementia in a relatively small number of people.
Although there is no proven prevention, in general, leading a healthy lifestyle may help reduce risk factors that have been associated with these diseases.
Are there different types of dementia?
The five most common forms of dementia are:
- Alzheimer disease: the most common dementia diagnosis among older adults. It is caused by changes in the brain, including abnormal buildups of proteins, known as amyloid plaques and tau tangles. See the 10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer disease.
- Frontotemporal dementia: a rare form of dementia that tends to occur in people younger than 60. It is associated with abnormal amounts or forms of the proteins tau and TDP-43.
- Lewy body dementia: a form of dementia caused by abnormal deposits of the protein alpha-synuclein, called Lewy bodies.
- Vascular dementia: a form of dementia caused by conditions that damage blood vessels in the brain or interrupt the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
- Mixed dementia: a combination of two or more types of dementia.
Researchers have also identified many other conditions that can cause dementia or dementia-like symptoms. These conditions include:
- Argyrophilic grain disease: a common, late-onset degenerative disease
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: a rare brain disorder
- Huntington’s disease: an inherited, progressive brain disease
- Chronic traumatic encephalopathy: caused by repeated traumatic brain injury
- HIV-associated dementia: a rare disease that occurs when the HIV virus spreads to the brain
Other conditions that cause dementia-like symptoms can be halted or even reversed with treatment. For example, normal pressure hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, often resolves with treatment. In addition, medical conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, and delirium can cause serious memory problems that resemble dementia, as can side effects of certain medicines.
Due to the overlap in symptoms of various dementias, it can be difficult to get an accurate diagnosis. But a proper diagnosis is important to get the best treatment.