What is Dementia?
Dementia is a general term that encompasses a wide range of symptoms associated with serious declines in mental abilities – notably memory loss – that make it difficult to perform daily activities. Accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and well-known form of dementia, but there are other types as well. Vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke, represents another 10 percent of cases, and is the second most common sole cause of dementia. In addition, many other conditions can cause dementia symptoms. Fortunately, some of these, such as vitamin deficiencies and thyroid problems, can be reversed.
Signs & Symptoms
The serious mental declines that characterize Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia should not be mistaken for normal aging, or referred to as “senility.” Initial signs of dementia include difficulty remembering names, events or recent conversations. Additional symptoms include depression and apathy. As dementia progresses, persons with dementia may exhibit confusion, changes in behavior, disorientation, poor judgment, and problems walking, speaking or swallowing. They may be suspicious of their family members, caregivers, friends or other acquaintances without cause
To be classified as dementia, two or more of the following core mental functions must be substantially impaired:
- Communication and language
- Focus and attention
- Visual perception
- Judgment and reasoning
In everyday activities, those afflicted by dementia typically have issues with short-term memory: They may have a hard time planning and preparing meals, or keeping track of appointments, keys or money. They may get lost easily when venturing beyond their immediate neighborhood.
Dementia results from damaged brain cells, which are unable to communicate with each other. This can cause changes to the individual’s moods, feelings, thinking and behavior. The particular type and location of brain cell damage influences the specific type of dementia.
Doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia based on a careful medical history, a physical examination, laboratory tests, and the changes in thinking, day-to-day function and behavior associated with each type. However, determining the specific type of dementia is a more complex matter. In some cases, this may require seeking out a neurologist, gerontologist or geriatric psychiatrist.
The source of dementia will dictate its treatment. Unfortunately, there is no cure for most progressive dementias like Alzheimer’s disease, and there are no treatments that keep them from progressing. However, some medications, as well as non-drug treatments, may temporarily ease symptoms.
What is Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia in older people. A dementia is a medical condition that disrupts the way the brain works. AD affects the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. Although the risk of getting the disease increases with age, it is not a normal part of aging. At present the cause of the disease is unknown and there is no cure.
AD is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer described changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found abnormal deposits (now called senile or neuritic plaques) and tangled bundles of nerve fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles). These plaques and tangles in the brain have come to be characteristic brain changes due to AD.
- Initial mild forgetfulness
- Confusion with names and simple mathematical problems
- Forgetfulness to do simple everyday tasks, i.e., brushing one’s teeth
- Problems speaking, understanding, reading and writing
- Behavioral and personality changes
- Aggressive, anxious or aimless behavior
No definitive test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in living patients exists. However, in specialized research facilities, neurologists now can diagnose AD with up to 90 percent accuracy. Information used for diagnosis includes:
- A complete medical history
- Basic medical tests (e.g., blood, urine tests)
- Neuropsychological tests (e.g., memory, problem-solving, language tests)
- Brain scans (e.g., MRI scan, CT scan or PET scan)
Alzheimer’s disease advances in stages, ranging from mild forgetfulness to severe dementia. The course of the disease and the rate of decline vary from person to person, potentially lasting from 5 to 20 years following the onset of symptoms. Currently, there is no effective treatment for AD that can halt the progression. However, some experimental drugs have shown promise in easing symptoms in some patients. Medications can help control behavioral symptoms, making patients more comfortable and easier to manage for caregivers. Still other research efforts focus on alternative care programs that provide relief to the caregiver and support for the patient.
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