What is Dementia?

I often hear people refer to all types of dementia as Alzheimer’s.  While Alzheimer’s is the most common of dementias, it is by no means the only type.  Dementia describes a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning, such as paying bills or becoming lost while driving.

Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells, which interferes with their ability to communicate with each other.  When brain cells are not communicating normally, thinking, behavior, and feelings can all be affected.  Different types of dementia affect different areas of the brain.

Most types of dementia are progressive, Alzheimer’s being the most common; however, there are dementias which are reversible, such as side effects to medication, excessive use of alcohol, and (surprisingly) urinary tract infections.  Treat the underlying issue, and the dementia goes away!

There is no one test for dementia, and doctors typically diagnose it based on medical history, physical examination, tests, and changes in the patient’s “base line” functionality.  For example, picture a person who is normally neat to a fault, always dressed and coiffed nicely, and has an orderly home.  If they start to let things pile up, let the house get dusty, forget to bathe, or wear the same clothes for days at a time, these may be signs that there is some kind of dementia occurring.  However, a person who was never overly concerned with cleanliness and personal hygiene would not raise any flags because their house was unkempt or they wore the same clothes more than one day in a row.

If you are concerned that a loved one may be suffering from dementia, the best place to start is with their primary care physician.  He or she is most likely to know the person’s “norm” and be able to determine if they have dementia with a high level of certainty.  Diagnosing the type of dementia is more difficult and may require the assistance of a specialist such as a neurologist or gero-psychologist.

As scary as a diagnosis of dementia may seem, the longer the condition remains undiagnosed, the fewer options are available to slow down the progression of the disease; the medications available today are most effective on patients with mild to moderate impairment.  It is also important to remember that, even with a diagnosis, it is very possible to continue to lead active, healthy lives, to continue enjoying one’s hobbies, to maintain loving and meaningful friendships and relationships.  Of course, dementia does make it more difficult to do certain things, but with the right knowledge and support, it is possible for someone with dementia to live a full and wonderful life.

It is also important to remember that you don’t have to do this alone.  There are support groups, care managers, legal experts, all available and ready to support you and your entire family through this process, wherever you may be on your journey, and in whatever capacity we can best be of service.