What is dementia?

“Dementia” is the word used to describe loss of memory and logical thought. The ability to plan, remember, and make well-reasoned decisions is essential to living independently. More than half of elders 85 and older have a condition that results in dementia symptoms.

Dementia is not a diagnosis in and of itself. It is a collection of symptoms. There are many causes of dementia. This is one reason it is important to have your family member evaluated. You want to identify which condition is at the root of the memory problem.

Dementia Symptoms

Depending on the cause, dementia symptoms can include

  • loss of ability to remember new information or recent events. Your family member may ask the same question over and over. He or she may repeat the same story 10 minutes after telling it.
  • confusion and loss of logical thinking. Inability to remember also affects the reasoning part of the brain. This is where we track that “a” leads to “b” which leads to “c.” For instance, dealing with numbers and calculations, such as adding and subtracting, frequently becomes a problem with dementia. This type of muddy thinking is also common with depression.
  • bad judgment and loss of wisdom or “common sense.” Weighing the pros and cons of a situation is mentally taxing. Your family member may have trouble zeroing in on a decision. For instance, ordering at a restaurant may become frustrating. You may find that your parent purchases unnecessary or unusual goods. Poor judgment may also make your family member vulnerable to scams and con artists.
  • Difficulty with multistep activities. Complex activities are especially hard when you can’t remember what you’ve just done. Early signs of dementia may include problems making a meal or balancing the checkbook.
  • Getting lost or disoriented. Your relative may get lost in familiar places. He or she may not be able to follow directions easily.
  • Reduced verbal skills. Difficulty finding words is a sign of dementia. We all have trouble with this now and then. But persons with dementia frequently substitute odd or unrelated words when they can’t find the one they want.
  • Loss of interest in usual activities/hobbies. This is also a sign of depression. Depression and memory loss frequently occur together. (It’s depressing to be losing your mental abilities!) And the muddy thinking of depression, especially in an older adult, can seem at first glance to be dementia.
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Treatable dementia

Some memory loss conditions can be treated and cured. The most common causes of temporary dementia include

  • drug reactions. Confused thinking may be a side effect of medication. Or it may result from a combination of drugs. Even over-the-counter and herbal remedies can cloud one’s ability to think logically.
  • medical conditions. Diseases of the kidneys or liver, for instance, can cause memory problems. People with especially high or low thyroid levels show symptoms of dementia. As the medical conditions are treated and cured, the dementia also goes away.
  • infection. A high fever can cause confusion. This is especially true of infections in the brain. Cure the infection and you’ve eliminated the dementia.
  • nutritional deficiency or dehydration. Lack of B vitamins, particularly B12 and thiamin, can result in confused thinking. So can insufficient fluid intake.
  • long-standing alcoholism. This form of dementia is treatable if caught early. Once the damage is done, however, the dementia symptoms can continue even if the person quits drinking altogether.
  • emotional distress. Anxiety and depression can affect thinking as well as mood. Fortunately, these conditions can be treated.

Other dementias are not curable
While there may not be a cure with these conditions, the worsening of the symptoms can be slowed down with medication. For instance, there are medications that can help with Alzheimer’s disease. Drugs that lower blood pressure and prevent blood clots can reduce the frequency of strokes, which are the cause of vascular dementia. Some people have more than one memory loss condition. As an example, it is not unusual for older adults to have both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

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Getting tested

If your loved one’s doctor reports “symptoms of dementia,” request further testing and a full diagnosis. Ideally, get a referral to a neurologist. A thorough work up includes special tests of thinking, blood tests, and a brain scan (CT or MRI).

Once you know the cause, you can then take action to cure the condition or at least slow down the decline in memory. The sooner you find out, the better.

Has your loved one been given a formal diagnosis? If not, which doctor could you talk with to ask for a full assessment?
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