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Dementia is a general loss of mental abilities. It can include a loss of ability to think, reason, learn, and understand. To be considered dementia, these mental losses must be severe enough to interfere with day-to-day activities. Dementia must also have:

  • Memory problems
  • Mental loss that is severe enough to cause problems with one or more of the following:
    • Language
    • Visuospatial function
    • Executive function (foresight, planning, anticipation, insight)
    • Praxis (learned motor skills

Some Areas of the Brain Affected by Dementia

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Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Causes of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer's disease —the most common cause of dementia
  • Brain damage after multiple small strokes (also called vascular dementia)
  • Lewy body disease
  • Alcoholism
  • AIDS
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Huntington's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other prion disorders
  • Front-temporal dementia (including Pick's disease)
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • Untreated syphilis
  • Toxic levels of metals, such as aluminum, which can sometimes occur in people who have dialysis treatment
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Thiamine deficiency
  • Thyroid dysfunction


Increasing age is the most common factor that increases your chance of developing dementia. Other factors include:

  • Family members with dementia
  • Down syndrome
  • Apolipoprotein E status (a genetic risk)
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Multiple strokes
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Chronic drug use
  • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy
  • Repetitive head trauma (may occur with contact sports)


Symptoms often begin mildly and get more severe over time. Symptoms vary according to the cause of the dementia, but often include:

  • Increasing trouble remembering things, such as:
    • How to get to familiar locations
    • What the names of family and friends are
    • Where common objects are usually kept
    • How to do simple math
    • How to do usual tasks, such as cooking, dressing, or bathing
    • How to drive
    • How to pay bills
  • Having difficulty concentrating on tasks
  • Having difficulty completing sentences due to lost/forgotten words (may continue to a complete inability to speak)
  • Forgetting the date, time of day, season
  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings
  • Being withdrawn, losing interest in usual activities
  • Having mood swings
  • Having personality changes
  • Walking in a slow, shuffling way
  • Having poor coordination
  • Losing purposeful movement


Your doctor may diagnose dementia through:

  • An extensive medical history from you and your family
  • Observing your behavior
  • A physical exam
  • Tests for your nervous system
  • Mental status and psychological tests

There are no blood tests or exams that can diagnose Alzheimer's disease. Certain types of brain imaging such as a SPECT or a PET scan may aid in a diagnosis. Tests to rule out other causes of dementia and other medical conditions that may mimic dementia include:

  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture —a test of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)—a test that records the brain's electrical activity

Imaging tests take pictures of internal body structures. These may include:

  • CT scan
  • MRI

The doctor will also check to see if you have depression. It can often present like dementia.


Currently, there are no treatments to cure many types of dementia. Some medication may help to decrease the symptoms of dementia or slow its course.


Two types of medications that may be used to reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors
  • N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonists

Treatments that are being studied include:

  • Gamma-secretase inhibitors.
  • Tau fiber aggregation inhibitors.
  • Herbs and supplements, such as vitamin E, ginkgo biloba, or huperzine A. Currently, evidence is mixed as to the effectiveness of these natural remedies.
Lifestyle Management

People with dementia can also benefit from increases in support and changes in their environment. These include:

  • Adapting your home to keep you safe
  • Providing a calm, quiet, predictable environment
  • Providing appropriate eyewear and hearing aids, easy-to-read clocks, and calendars
  • Participating in music therapy and/or dance therapy
  • Participating in physical and occupational therapy for daily activities
  • Encouraging light exercise to reduce agitation and relieve depression
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Discussing healthcare wishes with family members and doctors 
  • Appointing a healthcare proxy and a legal power of attorney
Psychiatric Medications

People with dementia often develop psychiatric symptoms. You may need appropriate treatment, such as:

  • Antidepressants
  • Antianxiety medications
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Antipsychotics
Caregiver Support

Caring for a person with dementia is very difficult. Those providing care will need support. The Alzheimer’s Association is an excellent resource for families and caregivers.


While the exact cause of dementia is not known, these steps may help to reduce your risk:

  • Eat a healthy diet. This will help you to maintain good levels of vitamin B12 and cholesterol.
  • Exercise regularly. This can also enhance cardiovascular health, which may delay the onset of vascular dementia.
  • Alcohol may have some benefits if you use it in moderation. This means no more than two drinks per day for a man, and one drink per day for a woman. Moderate amounts of alcohol may decrease your risk of dementia. Higher amounts of alcohol however, can increase your risk of dementia.
  • Engage in mentally stimulating activity. This may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.