What is Dementia?

Dementia is a term that describes a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is not a specific disease or condition but, rather, an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms. Alzheimer’s disease, which affects 60 to 80 percent of those diagnosed with dementia, is a form of dementia but not everyone with dementia has Alzheimer’s.

Symptoms of Dementia

Although dementia becomes increasingly more common with age, it is not the same as normal aging. As we get older, our brains store and retrieve information differently. Forgetting what we had for breakfast or why we walked into a room is a part of these changes. This is normal. With dementia, particular types of brain cells are damaged in particular regions of the brain due to disease, injury, stroke or something like heavy alcohol use. The resulting symptoms and behaviors are not normal. Memory is especially affected. Some of the common memory issues related to dementia include:

  • Forgetting names, places and other things more often than in the recent past
  • Not being able to remember how to do the things that you have always done
  • Difficulty learning anything new
  • Circular speech patterns, repeating phrases or stories during the same conversation
  • Inability to make choices
  • Trouble handling money
  • Difficulty with schedule or keeping track of what happens each day

What Does Dementia Affect

This disease is progressive. It may start slowly but will gradually worsen with time. Memory loss is one of the most common signs but, by itself, is not enough for dementia to be diagnosed: there must be serious problems with two or more brain functions. These include:

  • Memory
  • Language and communication
  • Ability to focus and pay attention
  • Judgment and reasoning
  • Visual perception

Other signs and symptoms to watch for are personality changes, depression, anxiety, inappropriate behavior, paranoia, agitation and hallucinations.

What Causes Dementia?

Dementia is the result of damage to brain cells. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of this mental disease, followed by vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke, but there are many other causes. Some of these are even reversible. The most common of those contributing to dementia that is not currently believed to be reversible are:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Vascular dementia
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

There are cases of this mental disease that may be reversible through treating or managing the particular cause. Some of those on this list include infections, substance abuse, tumors, certain types of blood clots in the brain, buildup of fluid in the brain, vitamin and hormone deficiencies, blood sugar levels and some neurocognitive disorders.

What can Help Dementia?

Currently, there is no cure for most progressive dementias, like Alzheimer’s disease, although there are aggressive and ongoing research programs. There are some treatments, typically medications, that may temporarily improve symptoms. There is also no known way to prevent this terrible disease, although, it is believed that there are things you can do that may help. While more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of these suggestions, the most common are:

  • Keep your mind active – puzzles, word games and other types of mental stimulation
  • Remain physically active and socially engaged
  • Quit smoking
  • Get enough vitamin D – low levels of vitamin D have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Maintain a healthy diet – fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids, found in certain fish and nuts, may lower the risk of developing dementia.