Define Dementia

Review Causes, Symptoms, Types and Risk Factors

It can be difficult to define dementia. It is a cluster of symptoms, not a specific disease.

In the past, dementia was referred to as senile dementia, as it was commonly thought to be a normal part of the aging process.

Dementia can be caused by different processes, but it always involves a progressive decline in intellectual functions, including language, speech, memory, decision making, motor function and judgment.

When asked to define dementia, most people think automatically of Alzheimer's. But there are other types of dementia.

The causes of dementia are usually grouped into categories of reversible and irreversible.

Loss of brain function can occur from a variety of causes. The most common initial symptom is short term memory loss. There can also be more subtle and insidious changes that may occur.

Knowing how to define dementia can take some of the fear away for both you and your loved one.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer's

The most common question people ask is ...

Is it dementia or is it Alzheimer's?

The easiest answer to that is this. Alzheimer's is just one type of dementia. It is by far the most common and well known, but there are other causes as well, some that are more treatable. All metabolic and organic causes of dementia should be ruled out before a diagnsosis of Alzheimer's is made.

In trying to define dementia, you will want to look at the whole picture. If you focus on just one symptom, or just one cause, you may be missing some information that could make a difference in the long term outlook for your loved one. You are your loved one's best advocate and you know them best. Any good physician will want you actively involved in determine the likely cause and treatment of this disease.

A quick review of the common types, causes, symptoms and risk factors can help you define dementia and understand more of what is going on within the body.

    Risk Factors
  • Age: Age is probably the biggest risk factor in developing dementia symptoms. Of those persons over the age of 85, anywhere from 30 - 50% are suffering from dementia.
  • Family History: If there is a family history of dementia, other family members are more likely to develop these symptoms.
  • Chronic Medical Conditions: Everything from diabetes, lung problems, liver problems or kidney problems can lead to dementia.
  • Medications and/or alcohol: Certain medications can cause confusion. Alcohol and smoking both can put someone at higher risk for the development of dementia.

    Symptoms of Dementia
  • In order to define dementia, symptoms must be looked at. Not only what symptoms are apparent, but also how quickly or slowly they progressed.
  • If symptoms occur rapidly and progress over just a few days, the condition is often referred to as delirium.
  • As brain function deteriorates, symptoms will progress, but the rate of that progression is determined somewhat by the cause of the dementia.
  • Common symptoms include short term memory loss, disorganization, speech and language problems, motor function decline and behavior changes.

    Reversible Causes of Dementia
  • Reversible causes of dementia should always be considered first so treatment can begin immediately.
  • Infections: The most common reason for change in behaviors and increased confusion in the elderly is a Urinary Tract Infection . Keep this in mind even if you end up with a diagnosis of irreversible dementia. Do not assume that all changes are related to the dementia process.
  • Brain tumors: Your physician should run a series of test, including a CT Scan of the brain, to determine if there are tumors or other organic issues that are causing the symptoms of dementia.
  • Metabolic Changes: Diseases of the liver, pancreas and kidneys can lead to dementia.
  • Nutritional Deficiencies: Malnutrition, low blood sugar, dehydration and vitamin deficiencies can all lead to symptoms of dementia. They are easily tested for on routine blood work.
  • Alcohol and Drug Reactions: Certain medications can cause reactions that can mimic dementia. Alcoholism is frequently associated with the development of dementia.
  • Hypoxia: Low levels of oxygen in the blood can result in the symptoms associated with dementia. If your loved one has a respiratory diagnosis, such as emphysema or COPD, they are at higher risk of hypoxia.
  • Hormone Imbalance: Thyroid imbalance can frequently lead to symptoms most often found in dementia. Standard blood work should always include thyroid screening tests as well.

    Irreversible Causes of Dementia
  • The diagnosis of irreversible dementia should only be made after all reversible causes have been ruled out.
  • "Irreversible" does not mean that there are no treatment options at all. There are still a variety of treatment modalities that can be used to manage symptoms and in some instances, slow the progression of symptoms.
  • The most common irreversible dementia is Alzheimer's Disease.
  • Other irreversible dementias include Parkinson's Dementia, Pick's Disease, vascular dementia, Jakob-Creutzfeldt disease and Huntington's Disease, to name a few.

One reason it is difficult to define dementia is that there are over 50 different disease process that can lead to the development of dementia symptoms.

The physician should want family members to be actively involved in the process of diagnosing a cause and treatment plan. As an advocate, you have every right to request that additional tests are done and that all reversible causes are ruled out.

Even if you should receive a diagnosis of one of the irreversible types, you should still watch for behavior changes. Any rapid change needs to be evaluated first as a treatable event.

Alzheimer's patients who develop a UTI will exhibit what appears to be a rapid decline, which is actually quite treatable and reversible with appropriate antibiotics.

For more information, John Hopkin's has an Dementia Guide Ebook that provides a variety of free dementia information.

Hopefully, you are better able to define dementia after reading this article. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me directly


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