Dementia isn't a specific disease. Instead, dementia describes a group of symptoms affecting intellectual and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning. Many causes of dementia symptoms exist. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of a progressive dementia.
Memory loss generally occurs in dementia, but memory loss alone doesn't mean you have dementia. Dementia indicates problems with at least two brain functions, such as memory loss and impaired judgment or language. Dementia can make you confused and unable to remember people and names. You also may experience changes in personality and social behavior. However, some causes of dementia are treatable and even reversible.
Dementia symptoms vary depending on the cause, but common signs and symptoms include:
When to see a doctor
Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia that worsens over time. Early diagnosis gives a person time to plan for the future while he or she can participate in making decisions.
Dementia has many causes. Some dementias such as Alzheimer's disease occur on their own, not as a result of another disease. Much is still unknown about how some diseases may be linked to dementia.
Dementias can be classified in a variety of ways and are often grouped by what they have in common, such as what part of the brain is affected, or whether they worsen over time (progressive dementias). Some dementias, such as those caused by a reaction to medications or an infection, are reversible with treatment.
Several types of vascular dementia exist and vary in their causes and symptoms. Some types affect only one side of the body, and some cause memory loss, confusion and mood changes. In some forms, symptoms may progressively worsen, while in others, they may be temporary. In general, vascular dementia is more common with age. Often this dementia coexists with Alzheimer's disease.
Other disorders linked to dementia
Dementia causes that can be reversed
Many factors can eventually lead to dementia. Some, such as age, can't be changed. Others can be addressed to reduce your risk.
Risk factors that can't be changed
Risk factors you can change
Dementia can affect the functioning of many body systems and, therefore, the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Dementia may lead to problems such as:
Preparing for your appointment
Most likely, you'll first see your primary care provider if you have concerns about dementia. In some cases, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in specific symptoms, such as a neurologist for brain and nerve disorders.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared. If you're a caregiver for someone with more advanced dementia, you'll likely be the one gathering information from the doctor. Here's some information to help you get ready.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help make the most of your time with the doctor. List questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For dementia, some basic questions to ask the doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions that come up.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Memory loss and other dementia symptoms have many causes, so diagnosis can be challenging and may require several doctor visits. Diagnosis involves a number of tests.
Medical history and physical exam
Cognitive and neuropsychological tests
Tests that help identify treatable medical conditions include:
Treatments and drugs
Treatment of dementia may help slow or minimize the development of symptoms.
Treatment of the underlying causes of dementia can also slow or sometimes stop its progress. To prevent a stroke, for example, your doctor may prescribe medications to control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. Doctors may also prescribe medication to treat conditions such as blood clots, anxiety and insomnia for people with vascular dementia.
In addition, some specific symptoms and behavioral problems can be treated with sedatives, antidepressants and other medications, but some of these drugs may worsen other symptoms.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has no known treatments. Care is focused on making sure the person is comfortable.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You can take steps to improve quality of life as the disease progresses.
Carry a reminder calendar
Maintain a calm and stable home environment
Establish a nighttime ritual
Create a plan
Keep in mind that the disease will evolve over time, and care needs to be adjusted as symptoms change and progress. People with dementia should be encouraged to continue their normal activities as long as they're safe and the activities don't cause frustration or confusion. Mental, social and physical activities help maintain a person's health and well-being.
Use caution when considering alternative remedies to ward off or slow the progression of dementia, especially if taking other medications. Dietary supplements, vitamins and herbal remedies aren't regulated, and claims about their benefits are often based on personal testimonials rather than scientific research. Some of the more popular alternatives for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia are:
Coping and support
Receiving a diagnosis of dementia can be devastating to you and your loved ones. Many things need to be considered to ensure that you and those around you are as prepared as possible for dealing with a condition that's unpredictable and continually changing.
Care and support for the person with the disease
Helping someone with dementia
There's no sure way to prevent dementia, but there are steps you can take that might help. More research is needed, but it can't hurt to do the following:
Last Updated: 2011-04-16
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