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What is dementia?

We all forget things as we get older. Many older people have a slight loss of memory that does not affect their daily lives. But memory loss that gets worse may mean that you have dementia.

Dementia is a loss of mental skills that affects your daily life. It can cause problems with memory, problem-solving, and learning. It also can cause problems with thinking and planning.

Dementia usually gets worse over time. But how quickly it gets worse is different for each person. Some people stay the same for years. Others lose skills quickly.

Your chances of having dementia rise as you get older. But this doesn’t mean that everyone will get it.

  • Symptoms

    What are the symptoms of dementia?

    Usually the first symptom of dementia is memory loss. Often the person who has a memory problem doesn't notice it, but family and friends do. As dementia gets worse, there may be:

    • More trouble doing things that take planning, like making a list and going shopping.
    • Trouble using or understanding words.
    • Instances of getting lost in well-known places.

    Over time, people with dementia may start to act very differently. They may become scared and strike out at others, or they may become clingy and childlike. They may stop brushing their teeth or bathing.

    Later, they can't take care of themselves. They may not know where they are. They may not know their loved ones when they see them.

    Memory loss can be caused by conditions other than dementia, such as depression. And having trouble now and then with memory (such as briefly forgetting someone's name) can be a normal part of aging.

  • Causes

    What causes dementia?

    Dementia is caused by damage to or changes in the brain. Things that can cause dementia include:

    • Alzheimer's disease. This is the most common cause.
    • Strokes, tumors, or head injuries. This type of dementia is called vascular dementia.
    • Diseases. These include Parkinson's disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, and frontotemporal dementia.

    Some disorders that cause dementia can run in families. Doctors often suspect an inherited cause if someone younger than 50 has symptoms of dementia.

  • Diagnosis

    How is dementia diagnosed?

    To diagnose dementia, your doctor will:

    • Do a physical exam.
    • Ask questions about recent and past illnesses and life events. The doctor will want to talk to a close family member to check details.
    • Ask you to do some simple things that test your memory and other mental skills. Your doctor may ask you to tell what day and year it is, repeat a series of words, or draw a clock face.

    The doctor may do tests to look for a cause that can be treated. For example, you might have blood tests to check your thyroid or to look for an infection. You might also have a test that shows a picture of your brain, like an MRI or a CT scan. These tests can help your doctor find a tumor or brain injury.

    Knowing the type of dementia a person has can help the doctor prescribe medicines or other treatments.

  • Treatment

    How is dementia treated?

    Medicines for dementia can slow it down for a while and make it easier to live with. Medicines can't cure it. But they may help improve mental function, mood, or behavior.

    If a stroke caused the dementia, doing things to reduce the chance of another stroke may help. They include eating healthy foods, being active, staying at a healthy weight, and not smoking.

    As dementia gets worse, a person may get depressed or angry and upset. An active social life, counseling, and sometimes medicine may help with changing emotions.

    The goals of ongoing treatment are to keep the person safely at home as long as possible and to provide support and guidance to the caregivers.

    The person will need routine follow-up visits. The doctor will monitor medicines and the person's level of functioning.

  • When to Call

    Dementia: When to call

    Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

    • You are lost and do not know whom to call.
    • You are injured and do not know whom to call.

    Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

    • You are more confused or upset than usual.
    • You feel like you could hurt yourself because your mind is not working well.

    Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

  • Self-Care

    How can you care for yourself when you have dementia?

    Take medicines for dementia as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you're having a problem with your medicine. Eat lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. If you aren't hungry, try snacks or nutritional drinks such as Boost, Ensure, or Sustacal. Try not to nap. Get regular exercise.


    Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.