What is Dementia?

Dementia is a serious cognitive disorder. It may be static, the result of a unique global brain injury or progressive, resulting in long-term decline in cognitive function due to damage or disease in the body beyond what might be expected from normal ageing. Although dementia is far more common in the geriatric population, it may occur in any stage of adulthood. This age cutoff is defining, as similar sets of symptoms due to organic brain syndrome or dysfunction, are given different names in populations younger than adult.

Dementia is a non-specific illness syndrome (set of signs and symptoms) in which affected areas of cognition may be memory, attention, language, and problem solving. It is normally required to be present for at least 6 months to be diagnosed; cognitive dysfunction that has been seen only over shorter times, in particular less than weeks, must be termed 'delirium'. In all types of general cognitive dysfunction, higher mental functions are affected first in the process. Especially in the later stages of the condition, affected persons may be disoriented in time (not knowing what day of the week, day of the month, or even what year it is), in place (not knowing where they are), and in person (not knowing who they are or others around them). Dementia, though often treatable to some degree, is usually due to causes that are progressive and incurable. Dementia is progressive - which means the symptoms will gradually get worse.

Symptoms of dementia can be classified as either reversible or irreversible, depending upon the etiology of the disease. Less than 10 percent of cases of dementia are due to causes that may presently be reversed with treatment. Causes include many different specific disease processes, in the same way that symptoms of organ dysfunction such as shortness of breath, jaundice, or pain are attributable to many etiologies. Without careful assessment of history, the short-term syndrome of delirium (often lasting days to weeks) can easily be confused with dementia, because they have all symptoms in common, save duration, and the fact that delirium is often associated with over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Some mental illnesses, including depression and psychosis, may also produce symptoms that must be differentiated from both delirium and dementia. Chronic use of substances such as alcohol as well as chronic sleep deprivation can also predispose the patient to cognitive changes suggestive of dementia.

What is the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer's?

The term 'dementia' is used to describe the symptoms that occur when the brain is affected by specific diseases and conditions. The syndrome of dementia has many causes, but the most common cause is Alzheimer's disease. Other causes of dementia arevascular dementia (dementia after a stroke), dementia with Lewy bodies, and a collection of dementias known as the front to temporal dementias.
Alzheimer's disease was first described by the German neurologist, Alois Alzheimer, as a physical disease affecting the brain. During the course of the disease 'plaques' and 'tangles' develop in the structure of the brain, leading to the death of brain cells.

People with Alzheimer also have a shortage of chemicals that are involved with the transmission of messages within the brain. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, which means that gradually over time more parts of the brain are damaged, and thus symptoms become more severe.
(Used with permission and thanks to the Alzheimer's society UK)

Is memory loss a normal part of growing old?

Your brain ages along with the rest of your body. As a natural part of the aging process, you will lose some of your mental ability. This normal decline in mental functioning should not interfere with your ability to function in your daily life.
Any drastic change in memory functioning may be indicative of an underlying disease. If this occurs, immediate contact must be made by with a doctor, psychiatrist, or geriatrician for a professional evaluation. The assessment will focus on any significant change in memory, personality, behaviour, language and analytical skills.