Dementia is not a disease itself, but rather a term to describe cognitive decline that is significant enough to cause the interference or interruption of daily function. Dementia is, unfortunately, very common in the United States and is becoming increasingly common as our population ages. And while the greatest risk factor for dementia is age, it is not a normal or expected part of aging.
Dementia affects millions of people in the United States. Forms of dementia include:
- Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia, making up about 60-80% of all cases
- Huntington’s Disease, another, less common, hereditary form of dementia
- Vascular Dementia, caused by the death of brain cells due to a stroke
- Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) – in which memory problems are worse than normal, but do not rise to the level of Alzheimer’s Disease. MCI may or may not be considered a form of “mild” dementia
When a loved one can’t remember something very basic – the name of a person they just met or a common word that’s right on the tip of their tongue, we may worry about dementia. However, more often than not, these are usually very common symptoms of aging and represent the natural cognitive decline we all experience as we get older. These symptoms may also be caused by stress, medication and even nutritional deficiencies, all of which can be corrected quickly and easily.
It is when these cognitive issues become truly concerning, when there is another daily function affected (such as language), and there is no other plausible explanation, that a neurologist may suspect dementia.
When is Dementia Strongly Suspected?
A thorough clinical evaluation, preferably by a specialized physician or neurologist, is needed to determine if dementia is a likely cause of symptoms. By and large, however, patients with dementia will experience some or all of the following characteristics:
- Significant memory loss
- Repeating questions after they have been answered
- Not recognizing familiar locations
- Severe confusion about familiar things or places
- Behavioral problems including aggression
- Wandering aimlessly
What To Do Next?
While dementia in all its forms is incurable, certain forms are treatable and the progression of symptoms can be slowed. It is, therefore, of paramount importance to get a clinical diagnosis and remain under the care and supervision of a qualified physician as soon as possible. If you or your loved one suspects dementia, the first course of action is to visit a doctor, and ideally, a specialist in neurological disorders. At the present, for degenerative dementia, no cure or disease modifying treatment is available; however there are medications available to improve memory recall.
New treatments for dementia, and most commonly Alzheimer’s Disease, are being developed each year. New therapies are bringing us ever-closer to finding a definitive drug or therapy that stops the progression of the disease.
Education and support for caregivers of dementia patients is critically important. This support can help both the caregiver and the patient. We place a great deal of emphasis on caregiver education and encourage family members and friends to learn more about dementia and how the patient is affected so that they are best able to cope with the physical and emotional demands the disease places on them as well.