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What is dementia?

Dementia describes a cluster of symptoms, rather than a particular disease. Generally, a person with dementia lives with symptoms that affect intellectual and social abilities to a degree that they interfere with daily life. Although Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of progressive dementia, the source of the symptoms can be from a variety of conditions. Some types of dementia cannot be completely cured, while others are caused by reversible or treatable conditions.

Although memory loss is the most common symptom associated with dementia, this symptom alone does not indicate dementia. The problems must involve at least two brain functions to qualify as dementia. Other symptoms of dementia include, but are not limited to, difficulty communicating; inability to learn and remember new things; problems with organization and planning; trouble with coordination and motor skills; changes in personality; inappropriate behavior; paranoia; hallucinations; and agitation. It is important to see or take a loved one to see a doctor if these symptoms are present. Early detection can give you time to plan for the future and to alleviate and possibly reverse symptoms.

Causes of dementia are often divided into two categories: conditions that are progressive, or that worsen over time, and those that can be reversed.

Among the progressive dementias are Alzheimer’s disease, caused by neuron damage resulting from a defective gene; Lewy body dementia, caused by clumps of protein in the brain; vascular dementia, caused by brain damage due to problems with arteries to the brain and heart; and frontotemporal dementia, cause by degeneration of nerve cells in the brain.

Reversible dementia can be caused by the following: infections and immune disorders; metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities; nutritional deficiencies; reactions to medications; subdural hematomas; poisoning; brain tumors; anoxia; and heart and lung problems.

Other conditions which can lead to dementia are Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, Pick’s disease, and progressive supranuclear palsy.

There are many risk factors that can lead or increase the likelihood of dementia, some that can’t be changed and others that can. Among risk factors that cannot be changed are increasing age, family history, and Down syndrome. Risk factors that you can change--whether by change in behavior or use of  medication--are alcohol use, atherosclerosis (plaques on artery walls), blood pressure, cholesterol, depression, diabetes, high estrogen levels, homocysteine blood levels, and smoking.

Besides treating the conditions that cause dementia, there are some medications that can control the behavior associated with dementia and slow the rate of progressive dementia. Those medication types that can alleviate behavior issues include anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers, serotonin-affecting drugs, and stimulants.

An additional aid to someone with dementia is to wear medical ID jewelry, like a medical ID bracelet, medical alert pendant, medical ID charm, or medical ID necklace. A medical ID can prove invaluable in the case that a person with dementia gets lost, forgets their personal and medical information, or is exhibiting behavior that might otherwise be perceived negatively.

In summary, dementia encompasses a wide array of symptoms with a wide array of causes, some preventable or reversible and others not. Whatever the case, it is important to see a doctor at the earliest signs of dementia so that symptoms can be treated and a plan for the future, if necessary, can be put in place.

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