Many older people worry about becoming more forgetful. They think
forgetfulness is the first sign of Alzheimer's disease. In the past, memory
loss and confusion were considered a normal part of aging. However, scientists
now know that most people remain both alert and able as they age, although it
may take them longer to remember things.
A lot of people experience memory lapses. Some memory problems are serious,
and others are not. People who have serious changes in their memory,
personality, and behavior may suffer from a form of brain disease called
dementia. Dementia seriously affects a person's ability to carry out daily
activities. Alzheimer's disease is one of many types of dementia.
The term dementia describes a group of symptoms that are caused by changes
in brain function. Dementia symptoms may include asking the same questions
repeatedly; becoming lost in familiar places; being unable to follow
directions; getting disoriented about time, people, and places; and neglecting
personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition. People with dementia lose their
abilities at different rates. Dementia is caused by many conditions. Some
conditions that cause dementia can be reversed, and others cannot. Further,
many different medical conditions may cause symptoms that seem like Alzheimer's
disease, but are not. Some of these medical conditions may be treatable.
Reversible conditions can be caused by a high fever, dehydration, vitamin
deficiency and poor nutrition, bad reactions to medicines, problems with the
thyroid gland, or a minor head injury. Medical conditions like these can be
serious and should be treated by a doctor as soon as possible.
Sometimes older people have emotional problems that can be mistaken for
dementia. Feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored may be more common for older
people facing retirement or coping with the death of a spouse, relative, or
friend. Adapting to these changes leaves some people feeling confused or
forgetful. Emotional problems can be eased by supportive friends and family, or
by professional help from a doctor or counselor.
The two most common forms of dementia in older people are Alzheimer's
disease and multi infarct dementia (sometimes called vascular dementia). These
types of dementia are irreversible, which means they cannot be cured. In
Alzheimer's disease, nerve cell changes in certain parts of the brain result in
the death of a large number of cells. Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease begin
slowly and become steadily worse. As the disease progresses, symptoms range
from mild forgetfulness to serious impairments in thinking, judgment, and the
ability to perform daily activities. Eventually, patients may need total
In multi infarct dementia, a series of strokes or changes in the brain's
blood supply may result in the death of brain tissue. The location in the brain
where the strokes occur and the severity of the strokes determine the
seriousness of the problem and the symptoms that arise. Symptoms usually begin
abruptly and progress in a step-wise fashion with repeated strokes. At this
time, there is no way to reverse damage that has already been caused by a
stroke. However, treatment to prevent further strokes is very important.