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Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. This topic focuses on other conditions that cause dementia. For more information on Alzheimer's, see the topic Alzheimer's Disease.
What is dementia?
We all forget things as we get older. Many older people have a slight loss of memory that does not affect their daily lives. But memory loss that gets worse may mean that you have dementia.
Dementia is a loss of mental skills that affects your daily life. It can cause problems with your memory and how well you can think and plan. Usually dementia gets worse over time. How long this takes is different for each person. Some people stay the same for years. Others lose skills quickly.
Your chances of having dementia rise as you get older. But this doesn't mean that everyone will get it.
If you or a loved one has memory loss that is getting worse, see your doctor. It may be nothing to worry about. If it is dementia, treatment may help.
What causes dementia?
Dementia is caused by damage to or changes in the brain. Things that can cause dementia include:
- Alzheimer's disease.
- Strokes, tumors, or head injuries. This type of dementia is called vascular dementia.
- Diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, and frontotemporal dementia.
What are the symptoms?
Usually the first symptom is memory loss. Often the person who has a memory problem doesn't notice it, but family and friends do. As dementia gets worse:
- You may have more trouble doing things that take planning, like making a list and going shopping.
- You may have trouble using or understanding words.
- You may get lost in places you know well.
Over time, people with dementia may begin to act very differently. They may become scared and strike out at others, or they may become clingy and childlike. They may stop brushing their teeth or bathing.
Later, they cannot take care of themselves. They may not know where they are. They may not know their loved ones when they see them.
How is dementia diagnosed?
There is no single test for dementia. To diagnose it, your doctor will:
- Do a physical exam.
- Ask questions about recent and past illnesses and life events. The doctor will want to talk to a close family member to check details.
- Ask you to do some simple things that test your memory and other mental skills. Your doctor may ask you to tell what day and year it is, repeat a series of words, or draw a clock face.
The doctor may do tests to look for a cause that can be treated. For example, you might have blood tests to check your thyroid or to look for an infection. You might also have a test that shows a picture of your brain, like an MRI or a CT scan. These tests can help your doctor find a tumor or brain injury.
How is it treated?
There are medicines you can take for dementia. They cannot cure it, but they can slow it down for a while and make it easier to live with.
As dementia gets worse, a person may get depressed or angry and upset. An active social life, counseling, and sometimes medicine may help with changing emotions.
If a stroke caused the dementia, there are things you can do to reduce the chance of another stroke. Make healthy lifestyle changes including eating healthy, being active, staying at a healthy weight, and not smoking. Manage other health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
How can you help a loved one who has dementia?
There are many things you can do to help your loved one be safe at home. For example, get rid of throw rugs, and put handrails in bathrooms to help prevent falls. Post reminder notes around the house. Put a list of important phone numbers by the telephone. You also can help your loved one stay active. Play cards or board games, and take walks.
Work with your loved one to make decisions about the future before dementia gets worse. It is important to write a living will and a durable power of attorney. A living will states the types of medical care your loved one wants. A durable power of attorney lets your loved one pick someone to be the health care agent. This person makes care decisions after your loved one cannot.
Watching a loved one slip away can be sad and scary. Caring for someone with dementia can leave you feeling drained. Be sure to take care of yourself and to give yourself breaks. Ask family members to share the load, or get other help.
Your loved one will need more and more care as dementia gets worse. In time, he or she may need help to eat, get dressed, or use the bathroom. You may be able to give this care at home, or you may want to think about using a nursing home. A nursing home can give this kind of care 24 hours a day. The time may come when a nursing home is the best choice.
You are not alone. Many people have loved ones with dementia. Ask your doctor about local support groups, or search the Internet for online support groups, such as the Alzheimer's Association. Help is available.
Dementia is caused by damage to or changes in the brain.
Common causes of dementia are:
- Alzheimer's disease. This is the most common cause of dementia.
- Vascular dementia. This may occur in people who have long-term high blood pressure, severe hardening of the arteries, or several small strokes. Strokes are the second most common cause of dementia.
- Parkinson's disease. Dementia is common in people with this condition.
- Dementia with Lewy bodies. It can cause short-term memory loss.
- Frontotemporal dementia, a group of diseases that includes Pick's disease.
- Severe head injury.
Less common causes of dementia include:
- Huntington's disease.
- Leukoencephalopathies, which are diseases that affect the deeper, white-matter brain tissue.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal condition that destroys brain tissue.
- Brain injuries from accidents or boxing.
- Some cases of multiple sclerosis (MS) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
- Multiple-system atrophy (a group of degenerative brain diseases affecting speech, movement, and autonomic functions).
- Infections such as late-stage syphilis. Antibiotics can effectively treat syphilis at any stage, but they cannot reverse the brain damage already done.
Some disorders that cause dementia can run in families. Doctors often suspect an inherited cause if someone younger than 50 has symptoms of dementia. For more information, see the topic Alzheimer's Disease.
Symptoms of dementia vary depending on the cause and the area of the brain that is affected. Symptoms include:
- Memory loss. This is usually the earliest and most noticeable symptom.
- Trouble recalling recent events or recognizing people and places.
- Trouble finding the right words.
- Problems planning and carrying out tasks, such as balancing a checkbook, following a recipe, or writing a letter.
- Trouble exercising judgment, such as knowing what to do in an emergency.
- Trouble controlling moods or behaviors. Depression is common, and agitation or aggression may occur.
- Not keeping up personal care such as grooming or bathing.
Some types of dementia cause particular symptoms:
- People who have dementia with Lewy bodies often have highly detailed visual hallucinations. And they may fall frequently.
- The first symptoms of frontotemporal dementia may be personality changes or unusual behavior. People with this condition may not express any caring for others, or they may say rude things, expose themselves, or make sexually explicit comments.
It is important to know that memory loss can be caused by conditions other than dementia, such as depression, and that those conditions can be treated. Also, occasional trouble with memory (such as briefly forgetting someone's name) can be a normal part of aging. But if you are worried about memory loss or if a loved one has memory loss that is getting worse, see your doctor.
How quickly dementia progresses depends on what is causing it and the area of the brain that is affected. Some types of dementia progress slowly over several years. Other types may progress more rapidly. If vascular dementia is caused by a series of small strokes, the loss of mental skills may be gradual. If it is caused by a single stroke in a large blood vessel, loss of function may occur suddenly.
The course of dementia varies greatly from one person to another. Early diagnosis and treatment with medicines may help for a while. Even without these medicines, some people remain stable for months or years, while others decline rapidly.
Many people with dementia are not aware of their mental decline. They may deny their condition and blame others for their problems. Those who are aware may mourn their loss of abilities and become hopeless and depressed.
Depending on the type of dementia, the person's behavior may eventually become out of control. The person may become angry, agitated, and combative or clingy and childlike. He or she may wander and become lost. These problems can make it difficult for family members or others to continue providing care at home. Palliative care can offer families a lot of support and assistance, which is why getting palliative care early is so important.
For more information on how palliative care can help people and family coping with dementia, see the topic Palliative Care.
Even with the best care, people with dementia tend to have a shorter life span than the average person their age. The progression varies depending on the disease causing the dementia and whether the person has other illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease. Death usually results from lung or kidney infections caused by being bedridden.
For more information on decisions you may face as your loved one's condition progresses, see the topic Care at the End of Life.
What to think about
Many older people have a slight loss of mental skills (usually recent memory) that doesn't affect their daily functioning. This is called mild cognitive impairment by some. People who have mild impairment may be in the early stage of dementia, or they may stay at their present level of ability for a long time.
What Increases Your Risk
You have a greater chance of developing vascular dementia if you:
When should you call your doctor?
- Numbness, weakness, or inability to move the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
- Vision problems in one or both eyes, such as dimness, blurring, double vision, loss of vision, or feeling like a shade is being pulled down over your eyes.
- Confusion, or trouble speaking or understanding.
- Trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.
- Severe headache with no known cause.
Call a doctor now if a person suddenly becomes confused or emotionally upset or doesn't seem to know who or where they are. These are signs of delirium, which can be caused by a reaction to medicines or a new or worsening medical condition.
Call a doctor if you or a person you are close to has new and troubling memory loss that is more than an occasional bout of forgetfulness. This may be an early sign of dementia.
Occasional forgetfulness or memory loss can be a normal part of aging. But any new or increasing memory loss or problems with daily living should be reported to a doctor. Learn the warning signs of dementia, and talk to a doctor if you or a family member shows any of these signs. They include increased trouble finding the right words when speaking, getting lost going to familiar places, and acting more irritable or suspicious than usual.
Exams and Tests
Doctors diagnose the cause of dementia by asking questions about the person's medical history and doing a physical exam, a mental status exam, and lab and imaging tests.
Tests can help the doctor learn whether the loss of mental abilities is caused by a treatable condition. Even for causes that cannot be treated, knowing the type of dementia a person has can help the doctor prescribe medicines or other treatments that may improve mood and behavior and help the family.
During a medical history and physical exam, the doctor will ask the affected person and a close relative or partner about recent illnesses or other life events that could cause memory loss or other symptoms such as behavioral problems. The doctor may ask the person to bring in all medicines he or she takes. This can help the doctor find out if the problem might be caused by the person being overmedicated or having a drug interaction.
Although a person may have more than one illness causing dementia, symptoms sometimes can distinguish one form from another. For example, early in the course of frontotemporal dementia, people may display a lack of social awareness and develop obsessions with eating.
Mental status exam
A doctor or other health professional will conduct a mental status exam. This test usually involves such activities as having the person tell what day and year it is, repeat a series of words, draw a clock face, and count back from 100 by 7s.
Many medical conditions can cause mental impairment. During a physical exam, the doctor will look for signs of other medical conditions and have lab tests done to find any treatable condition. Routine tests include:
- Thyroid hormone tests to check for an underactive thyroid.
- Vitamin B12 blood test to look for a vitamin deficiency.
Other lab tests that may be done include:
- Complete blood count, or CBC, to look for infections.
- ALT or AST, blood tests that check liver function.
- Chemistry screen to check the level of electrolytes in the blood and to check kidney function.
- Glucose test to check the level of sugar in the blood.
- HIV testing to look for AIDS.
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate, a blood test that looks for signs of inflammation in the body.
- Toxicology screen, which examines blood, urine, or hair to look for drugs that could be causing problems.
- Antinuclear antibodies, a blood test used to diagnose autoimmune diseases.
- Testing for heavy metals in the blood, such as a lead test.
- A lumbar puncture to test for certain proteins in the spinal fluid. This test may also be done to rule out other causes of symptoms.
Brain imaging tests such as CT scans and MRI may also be done to make sure another problem isn't causing the symptoms. These tests may rule out brain tumors, strokes, normal-pressure hydrocephalus, or other conditions that could cause a loss of mental abilities.
MRI and CT scan also can show evidence of strokes from vascular dementia.
Single photon emission CT (SPECT) and PET scan can help identify several forms of dementia, including vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia.
In some cases, electrical activity in the brain may be measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG). Doctors seldom use this test to diagnose dementia, but they may use it to distinguish dementia from delirium and to look for unusual brain activity found in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare cause of dementia.
After death, an autopsy may be done to find out for sure what caused dementia. This information may be helpful to family members concerned about genetic causes.
Medicines may slow down dementia, but they don't cure it. They may help improve mental function, mood, or behavior.
Palliative care is a kind of care for people who have a serious illness. It's different from care to cure the illness. Its goal is to improve a person's quality of life—not just in body but also in mind and spirit.
Care may include:
- Tips to help the person be independent and manage daily life as long as possible. For more information, see Home Treatment.
- Medicine. While medicines cannot cure dementia, they may help improve mental function, mood, or behavior.
- Support and counseling. A diagnosis of dementia can create feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety. A person in the early stage of the illness should seek emotional support from family, friends, and perhaps a counselor experienced in working with people who have dementia.
For more information, see the topic Palliative Care.
Planning for the future
If possible, make decisions while your loved one is able to take part in the decision making. These are difficult but important conversations. Questions include:
- What kind of care does he or she need right now?
- Who will take care of him or her in the future?
- What can the family expect as the disease progresses?
- What kind of financial and legal planning needs to be done?
Education of the family and other caregivers is critical to successfully caring for someone who has dementia. If you are or will be a caregiver, start learning what you can expect and what you can do to manage problems as they arise. For more information, see Home Treatment.
Treatment as dementia gets worse
The goal of ongoing treatment for dementia is to keep the person safely at home for as long as possible and to provide support and guidance to the caregivers.
Routine follow-up visits to a health professional (every 3 to 6 months) are necessary to monitor medicines and the person's level of functioning.
Eventually, the family may have to consider whether to place the person in a care facility that has a dementia unit.
Taking care of a person with dementia is stressful. If you are a caregiver, seek support from family members or friends. Take care of your own health by getting breaks from caregiving. Counseling, a support group, and adult day care or respite care can help you through stressful times and bouts of burnout.
Dementia is hard to prevent, because what causes it often is not known. But people who have dementia caused by stroke may be able to prevent future declines by lowering their risk of heart disease and stroke. Even if you don't have these known risks, your overall health can benefit from these strategies:
- Don't smoke.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Get plenty of exercise.
- Eat healthy food.
- Manage health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
- Stay mentally alert by learning new hobbies, reading, or solving crossword puzzles.
- Stay involved socially. Attend community activities, church, or support groups.
- If your doctor recommends it, take aspirin.
Home treatment for dementia involves teamwork among health professionals and caregivers to create a safe and comfortable environment and to make tasks of daily living as easy as possible. People who have mild dementia can be involved in planning for the future and organizing the home and daily tasks.
Tips for caregivers
Work with the team of health professionals to:
- Make sure your home is safe.
- Keep the person eating well.
- Manage bladder and bowel control problems.
- Manage driving privileges.
The team can also help you learn how to manage behavior problems. For example, you can learn ways to:
- Make the most of remaining abilities. Reinforce and support the person's efforts to remain independent, even if tasks take more time or aren't done perfectly.
- Help the person avoid confusion.
- Understand behavior changes.
- Manage agitation.
- Manage wandering.
- Communicate clearly.
Nursing home placement
Even with the best care, a person with progressive dementia will decline, perhaps to the point where the caregiver is no longer physically, emotionally, or financially able to provide care.
Making the decision about nursing home placement is often very difficult. Every family needs to consider its own financial situation, emotional capacity, and other issues.
Doctors use medicines to treat dementia in the following ways:
- To maintain mental functioning for as long as possible
- To prevent further strokes in people who have dementia caused by stroke (vascular dementia)
- To manage mood or behavior problems, such as depression, insomnia, hallucinations, and agitation
Medicines to help maintain mental function
- Cholinesterase inhibitors such as donepezil, galantamine, and rivastigmine.
- These drugs were developed to treat Alzheimer's disease, but they may be tried in other dementias, especially vascular dementia.
- It is not clear how long these medicines will work.
- Side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss.
- Memantine. This medicine is used to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, but may also help with mild to moderate vascular dementia.
Medicines to help control mood or behavior problems
Many behavior problems can be managed without medicines. For more information, see Home Treatment.
In some cases, the doctor may prescribe:
- Antipsychotic drugs , such as olanzapine (Zyprexa) and risperidone (Risperdal).
- Antidepressants, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
Medicines to prevent future strokes
- The doctor may prescribe medicines for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, since these conditions are risk factors for vascular dementia. These drugs can't reverse existing dementia, but they may prevent future strokes and heart disease that can lead to further brain damage.
- Ginkgo biloba. Many people take ginkgo biloba to improve or preserve memory. But studies have not shown that ginkgo biloba helps improve memory or prevent dementia.footnote 1
- Other medicines. Research is ongoing to look at the usefulness of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), antioxidants, and supplements such as citicoline. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- Reality orientation. People who have dementia may benefit from a structured group program that encourages them to focus on a variety of topics and to think creatively within their limits. This type of program, sometimes called reality orientation or cognitive stimulation therapy, is offered in some day care and residential settings.
- Validation therapy. A person who has dementia may say things that don't make sense. A caregiver's response may be to correct or disagree with him or her. This can be frustrating for everyone. Validation therapy is a way to talk to someone with empathy. It can help to give the person with dementia a feeling of control or calmness. It recognizes his or her feelings and emotions.
- Occupational therapy. Occupational therapists focus on a person's ability to perform daily tasks and take part in social activities.
- Birks J, Grimley Evans J (2009). Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
Other Works Consulted
- Birks J, Grimley Evans J (2009). Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
- Bourgeois JA, et al. (2008). Delirium, dementia, and amnestic and other cognitive disorders. In RE Hales et al., eds., American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, 5th ed., pp. 303–363. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Butler R, Radhakrishnan R (2012). Dementia, search date July 2011. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
- Drugs for cognitive loss and dementia (2010). Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics: Drugs of Choice, 8(91): 19–24.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2003). Screening for dementia: Recommendation and rationale. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/3rduspstf/dementia/dementrr.htm.
Current as of: June 16, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Myron F. Weiner MD - Psychiatry, Neurology
Current as of: June 16, 2021