What Is Dementia?
Important information to know about dementia.
Dementia is a reduction in mental ability that affects someone’s day-to-day life. It might surprise you to learn that dementia itself is not a specific disease—instead, it’s a set of symptoms related to thinking and memory skills, behavior, and personality.
What Causes Dementia?
At the most basic level, dementia is caused by damage to the brain that makes it harder for brain cells to send signals to each other. Dementia can, at times, damage only certain parts of the brain, affecting the normal function of those parts of the brain.
Sometimes, dementia is caused by a specific disease, but in other cases, it’s caused by problems with blood-flow to the brain, traumatic brain injuries like concussions, central nervous system infections, fluid buildup in the brain, or lifestyle factors like drug and alcohol use.
Symptoms & Signs of Dementia
A sign of dementia could be forgetting things that were learned recently or important dates, names, or even skills. Some notice their loved ones needing more help remembering things they used to handle on their own.
Trouble with Problem-Solving & Planning
Certain types of dementia can affect things like working with numbers and budgeting, following familiar recipes, or just general trouble with concentration.
Difficulty with Familiar Tasks
One very noticeable symptom of some dementias can be trouble with familiar tasks, such as forgetting the rules to a favorite game, directions to a familiar place, or a familiar old recipe, for example.
Losing Track of Time & Place
Dementia can cause people issues with important dates and times or even the season of the year. Someone with dementia could even lose track of where they are, where they may be going, or how they got where they are.
While vision loss is a normal part of aging, dementia can cause challenges with reading, judging distances, differentiating colors, and more.
Dementia could cause problems with speaking and writing, including vocabulary, starting and holding conversations, or even calling familiar things by the wrong name.
People with dementia sometimes misplace things, leave familiar things in unfamiliar places, have trouble retracing their steps, or even start accusing others of stealing from them.
Trouble with Judgement
One big problem dementia can cause has to do with judgment and decision-making, often related to money management. It can also cause people to lose interest in self-care, grooming, or eating right.
Social & Professional Withdrawal
Dementia can cause people to feel less social, reduce their interest in favorite activities and hobbies, or give them trouble keeping up with friends, family, or even their favorite sports teams and players.
Mood & Personality Changes
People with dementia can find themselves feeling more confused, depressed, anxious, or suspicious than normal. They can also find themselves outside their comfort zone or more easily upset than in the past.
Dementia Diagnosis & Treatment
There isn’t one single test for diagnosing dementia. Instead, doctors must carefully consider medical history, do a physical exam, perform lab tests, and make note of the signs and symptoms described above. Sometimes, a doctor will diagnose someone with dementia without a specific type, but in other cases, a specific disease, dementia type, or root cause could be determined.
Although many types of dementia are permanent, progressive, and largely untreatable, there are dementia-like symptoms that could improve with treatment. These include depression, side-effects from medication, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid issues, drinking too much alcohol, and others.
Types of Dementia
- Alzheimer’s Disease – The most common form of dementia, totaling 60%-80% of cases, caused by a buildup of plaques and twisted neuron connections in the brain
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease – A rare brain disease believed to be caused by abnormal cellular proteins
- Parkinson’s Disease – A set of symptoms including tremors, stiffness, slow movements, difficulty walking, and others
- Huntington’s Disease – A genetic disorder causing neuron death
- Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – Caused by repeated traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions
- Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP) – A disorder causing loss of balance, trouble walking, uncontrollable eye movement, and other dementia-related symptoms
- Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NHP) – A rare disorder believed to be caused by the buildup of fluid in the brain
- Argyrophilic Grain Disease – A fairly common late-onset dementia
- Mixed Dementia – When two or more single types of dementia are combined
There are things you and your loved ones can do to help avoid the onset and progression of dementia. Keep your cardiovascular system strong by exercising regularly to help blood-flow to the brain. Eat a nutritious and varied diet. Avoid smoking, excessive drinking, and drug use. Engage with friends, family, and pets. Finally, challenge your brain with puzzles, reading, games, and sports like golf.
Ultimately, dementia risk factors like genetics and age can’t be avoided, but a healthy, active lifestyle might help!