Is this Dementia and What Does it Mean?
This article was updated on: 09/15/2018
Dementia is a word that gets mentioned a lot when people discuss aging and behavioral or memory changes. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease attacks the brain and is the most common form of dementia, which is a general term for a decline in mental ability that affects everyday life. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, the dementia definition describes an array of medical symptoms including memory loss; loss of intellectual functions such as judgment, language, and communication skills; and impaired motor skills that indicate permanent damage or death of nerve cells (neurons) in the brain.
Wondering whether you or your loved one is experiencing dementia or just the normal changes of aging? Here are some warning signs, symptoms, and ways to differentiate between normal aging, reversible dementia, and degenerative (irreversible) dementia.
What are some causes of reversible dementia or “pseudodementia?”
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, changes in mental capacity that mimic dementia among older people have many causes:
- Adverse drug reactions and interactions (some of the most common causes of confusion and cognitive impairment in the elderly)
- Thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal abnormalities
- Metabolic abnormalities and changes in blood chemistry
- Vision and hearing changes, systemic infections, and nutritional deficiencies
- Depression and emotional distress
- Urinary tract infections (according to the Centers for Disease Control)
Ask your doctor for a complete evaluation to rule out any medical causes if you notice potential signs of dementia.
How can I tell if it’s dementia or normal aging?
The Alzheimer’s Association lists 10 early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) as compared to normal changes associated with aging.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, some of the early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia include:
- Memory loss, especially short-term. People with dementia ask for the same information over and over and often forget things that happened that same day, even though they remember events that happened long ago. A person with normal aging changes may forget a name or an appointment, but remember it later.
- Difficulties with problem-solving. A person with dementia may have trouble following a recipe or paying bills. Normal aging may cause someone to make an occasional error balancing her checking account.
- Trouble performing familiar tasks. A person with dementia may forget his way to the hardware store or a friend’s house, or forget how to play a card game, while a person with changes of aging may need help programming the DVR or microwave.
- Disorientation about place and time. Alzheimer’s patients get confused about the passage of time, seasons, and days of the week. They might not understand things that are happening now versus later. Normal aging changes may cause someone to forget what day it is occasionally, but remember later.
- New problems with words. People with dementia may forget what they’re saying mid-sentence or continually repeat themselves. They may have trouble following a conversation or forget words for familiar things. A normal age-related change might cause someone to temporarily forget a name or word.
- Extreme mood changes. A person with dementia may get suspicious, anxious, fearful, or depressed for no apparent reason or when taken out of familiar surroundings. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for older people to develop specific routines and become irritated when they are disrupted.
Is there any cure for dementia?
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, there is no real cure for degenerative (irreversible) dementia, but there are medical treatments that may help slow the rate of decline. There are also prescription drugs that may help manage symptoms related to dementia, like motor problems, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and mood changes. Overall, good communication with a primary care doctor about the person’s well-being, is important.
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For more information about dementia, please see:
“Dementia: Is this Dementia and What Does it Mean?” Family Caregiver Alliance, last modified 2005, https://www.caregiver.org/is-this-dementia-what-does-it-mean