What is Dementia?

Dementia refers to neurological changes that affect thinking, behavior, and memory. Alzheimer’s disease is a common form of progressive dementia that usually affects older adults. Other types of progressive dementia include:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Mixed dementia

Certain other disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and traumatic brain injury, have also been linked to dementia.

Symptoms

Dementia may cause a variety of symptoms that can range from mild to severe, including:

Problems with thinking or remembering, such as:

  • Memory loss
  • Trouble expressing ideas or finding the right words
  • Difficulty with problem-solving or reasoning
  • Trouble handling complex or multi-step tasks
  • Trouble with coordination, balance, and other motor functions
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation

Psychological or personality changes, such as:

  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations

Causes and Risk Factors

Dementia occurs when nerve cells and their connections in the brain are damaged or lost. Some types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, are irreversible and progressive, meaning that the condition is permanent and gets worse over time.

However, some conditions cause dementia-like symptoms that can sometimes be reversed with treatment. These conditions include nutritional deficiencies, infections, immune disorders, side effects from medication, poisoning, metabolic and endocrine problems, and other neurological conditions such as a brain tumor.

Dementia is more common in older people. If you have a family history of dementia, you may be at a higher risk of developing the condition. Although you can’t prevent dementia, you may be able to lower your risk by staying mentally, physically, and socially active as you age.


Diagnosis

To diagnose dementia, your doctor will review your medical history and evaluate your symptoms. Your doctor also may perform exams or order tests, including:

  • Neurological exams. Neurological exams will differ depending on your age, but adults will be asked to answer questions and complete simple tasks to test movement, muscle condition, the function of each of the senses, and general neurological well-being.

  • Cognitive tests. Cognitive tests assess your memory and concentration.

  • Brain imaging tests. Your doctor may order imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans to check for serious injuries or complications.

  • Blood tests. Blood tests can detect problems that may affect brain function.

  • Lumbar puncture. A lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, involves removing a sample of your cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from around your spinal cord and testing it to check for abnormalities.

  • Mental health evaluation. A psychiatric evaluation can help your doctor to determine whether a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, is contributing to your symptoms.


Treatment

Depending on your specific symptoms and condition, your doctor may recommend treatment with medications to temporarily improve dementia symptoms or treat co-occurring conditions, such as insomnia or depression. Your doctor may also recommend occupational therapy, environmental modifications, or psychiatric care to help people with dementia and their loved ones cope with symptoms and prepare for the progression of your condition.