Witnessing a loved one struggle with his memory or experience personality changes can be heartbreaking. After all, our minds define who we are and how we interact with others. Understanding what dementia is can help shed light on what to expect when symptoms strike. Read on to learn more.

Definition of Dementia

Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.[1]

Types of Dementia

There are two forms of dementia. With progressive, or degenerative, dementia the symptoms gets worse over time while with reversible dementia, some symptoms can be reversed if caught early enough.[2]

Signs & Symptoms of Dementia

Memory loss generally occurs in dementia, but memory loss alone doesn’t mean a person has dementia. Dementia indicates problems with at least two of the following brain functions:[1]

  • Memory
  • Communication and language
  • Ability to focus and pay attention
  • Reasoning and judgment
  • Visual perception

Symptoms vary depending on the cause, but common signs and symptoms include the following:[1,2]

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Inability to learn or remember new information
  • Difficulty with planning and organizing
  • Difficulty with coordination and motor functions
  • Personality changes
  • Inability to reason
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations

Causes of Dementia

Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, making up 60 to 80 percent of cases. The second most common cause of dementia is vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke. The following medical conditions also can lead to dementia:[1,2]

  • Lewy body disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Infections that can affect the brain, such as HIV /AIDS and Lyme disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Pick’s disease
  • Progressive supranuclear palsy
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

The following causes of dementia may be stopped or reversed if caught soon enough:

  • Brain injury
  • Brain tumors
  • Heart and lung problems
  • Chronic alcohol abuse
  • Changes in blood sugar, sodium and calcium levels
  • Poisoning
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • Thyroid problems
  • Depression
  • Medication side effects
  • Vitamin deficiencies

Effects of Dementia

Complications brought on by dementia may include the following:[3]

  • Abuse by an overstressed caregiver
  • Increased infections anywhere in the body
  • Loss of ability to function or care for self
  • Loss of ability to interact
  • Reduced lifespan
  • Side effects of medications

Treatments for Dementia

Treatment depends on what’s causing the dementia, but methods include the following:[2,3]

Medication: Stopping or changing medications that make confusion worse may improve brain function. In addition, medications, such as antipsychotics, mood stabilizers and stimulants may help control behavior problems caused by a loss of judgment, increased impulsivity and confusion. Other drugs may help slow the symptoms from getting worse.

Treating co-existing conditions: Treating the following conditions can improve mental functioning.

  • Anemia
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Decreased blood oxygen (hypoxia)
  • Depression See Depression in the Elderly.
  • Heart failure
  • Infections
  • Nutritional disorders
  • Thyroid disorders

Mental exercise: There is growing evidence that some kinds of mental exercises can help dementia.[2] For a list cognitive exercises, visit Cognitive Activities for the Elderly. Also visit Recreational Activities for the Elderly for ideas to keep seniors active.


  1. Alzheimer’s Association. What is Dementia? Retrieved February 10, 2013, from
  2. Mayo Clinic. Dementia Symptoms. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from
  3. US National Library of Medicine. Dementia. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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