What Is Dementia?
By Bonnie L. Holmes
Dementia is not a specific disease. It is a broad description which in
cludes many different symptoms of general decline in mental ability. It must be severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is caused by injury or loss of brain cells (neurons). Once brain cells are injured, they lose their ability to communicate with other cells, leading to dysfunction.
There are a number of conditions that affect the brain and can be attributed to the category of dementia: Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases. Vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke, is the second most common dementia type. Other causes for dementia include Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, heavy alcohol use, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Some conditions can cause dementia-like symptoms. These include reactions to medications, metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, infections, poisoning, brain tumors, anoxia or hypoxia (conditions in which the brain’s oxygen supply is either reduced or cut off entirely), and heart and lung problems. These conditions can be reversed with the correct diagnosis, treatment and care.
Signs and symptoms of dementia may vary greatly. They typically include at least two of the following mental functions: memory loss; problems with speaking, language or other communication skills; problems focusing and pay attention; impairments in reasoning and judgment; and even difficulty comprehending what is seen. Many dementias are progressive, meaning symptoms start out slowly and gradually get worse. Although dementia (especially Alzheimer’s disease), is common in very elderly individuals, it is not a normal part of the aging process.
There is no cure for dementia. Perscription drugs to treat dementia include Donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), galantamine (Razadyne), and memantine (Namenda). A new combination of donepezil and memantine (Namzaric) was recently approved by the FDA. These drugs are often used and may be beneficial in early stages, while dementia is a mild to moderate disorder. Overall benefit, however, may be negligible.
For people with dementia and those who care for them many measures can improve their lives. Mental, physical and spiritual exercise programs are beneficial with respect to activities of daily living. Relaxation techniques are very advantageous for reducing stress.
If you or a loved one is experiencing memory difficulties or other changes in thinking skills, don’t ignore them. See a doctor soon to determine the cause. Professional evaluation may detect a treatable condition. Even if symptoms suggest dementia, early diagnosis allows a person to get the maximum benefit from available treatments.