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What is dementia?
Dementia is a loss of mental functions that is severe enough to affect your daily life and activities. These functions include
- Language skills
- Visual perception (your ability to make sense of what you see)
- Problem solving
- Trouble with everyday tasks
- The ability to focus and pay attention
It is normal to become a bit more forgetful as you age. But dementia is not a normal part of aging. It is a serious disorder which interferes with your daily life.
What are the types of dementia?
The most common types of dementia are known as neurodegenerative disorders. These are diseases in which the cells of the brain stop working or die. They include
- Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia among older people. People with Alzheimer's have plaques and tangles in their brain. These are abnormal buildups of different proteins. Beta-amyloid protein clumps up and forms plaques in between your brain cells. Tau protein builds up and forms tangles inside the nerve cells of your brain. There is also a loss of connection between nerve cells in the brain.
- Lewy body dementia, which causes movement symptoms along with dementia. Lewy bodies are abnormal deposits of a protein in the brain.
- Frontotemporal disorders, which cause changes to certain parts of the brain:
- Changes in the frontal lobe lead to behavioral symptoms
- Changes in the temporal lobe lead to language and emotional disorders
- Vascular dementia, which involves changes to the brain's blood supply. It is often caused by a stroke or atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) in the brain.
- Mixed dementia, which is a combination of two or more types of dementia. For example, some people have both Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.
Other conditions can cause dementia or dementia-like symptoms, including
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare brain disorder
- Huntington's disease, an inherited, progressive brain disease
- Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by repeated traumatic brain injury
- HIV-associated dementia (HAD)
Who is at risk for dementia?
Certain factors can raise your risk for developing dementia, including
- Aging. This is the biggest risk factor for dementia.
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Having close family members who have dementia
What are the symptoms of dementia?
The symptoms of dementia can vary, depending on which parts of the brain are affected. Often, forgetfulness is the first symptom. Dementia also causes problems with the ability to think, problem solve, and reason. For example, people with dementia may
- Get lost in a familiar neighborhood
- Use unusual words to refer to familiar objects
- Forget the name of a close family member or friend
- Forget old memories
- Need help doing tasks that they used to do by themselves
Some people with dementia cannot control their emotions and their personalities may change. They may become apathetic, meaning that they are no longer interested in normal daily activities or events. They may lose their inhibitions and stop caring about other peoples' feelings.
Certain types of dementia can also cause problems with balance and movement.
The stages of dementia range from mild to severe. In the mildest stage, it is just beginning to affect a person's functioning. In the most severe stage, the person is completely dependent on others for care.
How is dementia diagnosed?
Your health care provider may use many tools to make a diagnosis:
- A medical history, which includes asking about your symptoms
- A physical exam
- Tests of your thinking, memory, and language abilities
- Other tests, such as blood tests, genetic tests, and brain scans
- A mental health evaluation to see whether a mental disorder is contributing to your symptoms
What are the treatments for dementia?
There is no cure for most types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease and Lewy body dementia. Treatments may help to maintain mental function longer, manage behavioral symptoms, and slow down the symptoms of disease. They may include
- Medicines may temporarily improve memory and thinking or slow down their decline. They only work in some people. Other medicines can treat symptoms such as anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and muscle stiffness. Some of these medicines can cause strong side effects in people with dementia. It is important to talk to your health care provider about which medicines will be safe for you.
- Occupational therapy to help find ways to more easily do everyday activities
- Speech therapy to help with swallowing difficulties and trouble speaking loudly and clearly
- Mental health counseling to help people with dementia and their families learn how to manage difficult emotions and behaviors. It can also help them plan for the future.
- Music or art therapy to reduce anxiety and improve well-being
Can dementia be prevented?
Researchers have not found a proven way to prevent dementia. Living a healthy lifestyle might influence some of your risk factors for dementia.
- Dementia (American Academy of Family Physicians) Also in Spanish
- Dementia (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke) - Short Summary
- The Dementias: Hope through Research (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
- Understanding Memory Loss: What To Do When You Have Trouble Remembering (National Institute on Aging) - PDF
- What Is Dementia? Symptoms, Types, and Diagnosis (National Institute on Aging)
Diagnosis and Tests
- Dementia: Diagnosis and Tests (AGS Foundation for Health in Aging)
- Frontotemporal Dementias: Diagnosis (Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration)
- Screening for Cognitive Impairment in Older Adults (U.S. Preventive Services Task Force) - PDF
Treatments and Therapies
- 5 Things to Know about Complementary Health Practices for Cognitive Function, Dementia, and Alzheimer's Disease (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Medications for Memory (Alzheimer's Association)
- Tips for Living Alone with Early-Stage Dementia (National Institute on Aging)
- Brain Donation: A Gift for Future Generations (National Institute on Aging) Also in Spanish
- Caring for a Person with a Frontotemporal Disorder (National Institute on Aging)
- Cognitive Health (National Institute on Aging)
- Dementia and Driving (Family Caregiver Alliance)
- End-of-Life Care for People with Dementia (National Institute on Aging) Also in Spanish
- Going to the Hospital: Tips for Dementia Caregivers (National Institute on Aging) - PDF
- Sundowning: Late-Day Confusion (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Binswanger's Disease (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
- CADASIL (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
- Frontotemporal Dementia (Pick's Disease) (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
- Frontotemporal Disorders: Hope Through Research (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
- Klüver-Bucy Syndrome (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
- Parkinson's Disease Dementia (Alzheimer's Association)
- Types of Dementia (Alzheimer's Association)
- What Are Frontotemporal Disorders? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment (National Institute on Aging)
- Cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
- Cerebral autosomal recessive arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
- CHMP2B-related frontotemporal dementia: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
- Dementia with Lewy bodies: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
- Frontotemporal dementia with parkinsonism-17: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
- GRN-related frontotemporal lobar degeneration: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
- Inclusion body myopathy with early-onset Paget disease and frontotemporal dementia: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
- Myoclonic epilepsy with ragged-red fibers: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
Statistics and Research
- Caregiving for a Person with Alzheimer's Disease or a Related Dementia (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- Could Taking Statins Prevent Dementia, Disability? (National Institute on Aging)
- FastStats: Alzheimer's Disease (National Center for Health Statistics)
- Financial Problems Can Be Sign of Dementia (National Institutes of Health) Also in Spanish
- High Rates of Dementia, Alzheimer's Observed Among Older People with Down Syndrome (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)
- Lack of Sleep in Middle Age May Increase Dementia Risk Also in Spanish
- Mild Cognitive Impairment and Progession to Dementia: New Findings (American Academy of Neurology) - PDF
- Participating in the Arts Creates Paths to Healthy Aging (National Institute on Aging)
- Scam Susceptibility May Signal Risk for Cognitive Decline (National Institute on Aging)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Dementia (National Institutes of Health)
- Common Questions about Participating in Alzheimer's and Related Dementias Research (National Institute on Aging)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Alzheimer's: Glossary (Alzheimer's Association)
Find an Expert
- Dementia (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Dementia - behavior and sleep problems (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Dementia - daily care (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Dementia - keeping safe in the home (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Dementia and driving (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Dementia due to metabolic causes (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Mental status testing (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish