Chief of Geriatric Medicine George Hennawi, MD consults with a patient at the Center for Successful Aging.
Dementia refers to a wide range of symptoms that cause a significant loss or impairment of cognitive function. It occurs when certain brain cells are damaged, preventing them from sending messages to one another. It can affect one's memory, judgment, attention span, mood and ability to think clearly and coherently.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive, degenerative disease, which means it continues to worsen, and patients experience a steady decline in function.
Alzheimer's disease affects people in different ways. The disease is slowly progressive from onset. Memory loss, confusion, disorientation, and poor judgment are a few of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
Types of dementia and memory loss
The two most prevalent forms include:
- Alzheimer's disease: This is the most common form of dementia. It is progressive and degenerative, meaning it continues to worsen over time and causes a steady decline in cognitive function. It occurs in 60 to 80 percent of patients with dementia.
- Vascular dementia: This occurs after one suffers a stroke, when blood and vital nutrients are unable to flow to brain vessels and in turn, damage brain cells. It leads to memory loss and accounts for 20 to 30 percent of dementia cases.
Common symptoms and risk factors
Alzheimer’s disease causes a significant loss of cognitive function affecting memory, judgment, attention, mood, and abstract thinking. Common symptoms of dementia and early indicators of Alzheimer's disease may include:
- Apathy and depression
- Behavior or mood changes
- Confusion about time and place
- Impaired judgment
- Language problems
- Loss of concentration or inability to pay attention
- Loss of insight
While the exact cause remains unknown, there are several risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing dementia, including:
- Age: This is the most common risk factor. After age 65, the likelihood of developing dementia doubles every five years.
- Genetics and family history: Dementia and Alzheimer's disease, in particular, tend to occur in families. If multiple relatives have developed dementia or Alzheimer's, your risk increases. The occurrence or likelihood of dementia within one's family also may be caused by a certain gene.
Treatment options and preventive steps
In order to diagnose any form of dementia, our physicians will consider medical and family history and any significant changes in behavior, memory and cognition. They may also do a physical examination and conduct several tests to determine if you or a loved one has developed dementia. While there is currently no cure, drug therapy is available to help slow progress and treat cognitive and behavioral symptoms. In these cases, our physicians will discuss any treatment options. In addition, we are actively conducting research to improve treatment options for dementia symptoms and Alzheimer's disease.
If you would like to decrease your risk, you can take the following steps:
- Age healthfully: Maintain a healthy weight, avoid tobacco and excess alcohol, stay socially connected, and exercise your body and mind.
Be proactive about warning signs: Complete this free memory assessment with your primary care physician to find out if you should see a geriatric specialist about your memory and cognitive function. Assessment used with permission of the author, S. Borson.
- Keep your heart healthy: Brain health is strongly linked to heart health. Your risk of developing dementia symptoms can be increased by conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
- Protect yourself from head injury: Research shows that serious head injuries could potentially lead to dementia symptoms or Alzheimer's disease in the future.
Test your memory with this free self-assessment of cognition and find out if you should see a geriatric specialist. Assessment used with permission of the author, S. Borson.