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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.
In a few cases, dementia is caused by a problem that can be treated. Examples include having an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), not getting enough vitamin B12, and fluid buildup in the brain (normal-pressure hydrocephalus). In these cases, treating the problem may help the dementia.
As you age, medicines may affect you more. Taking some medicines together may cause symptoms that look like dementia. Be sure your doctor knows about all of the medicines you take. This means all prescription medicines and all over-the-counter medicines, herbs, vitamins, and supplements.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about dementia:
Living with dementia: