What Is Dementia?

Many older adults fear dementia, and may even have dementia symptoms, but know little about it. Exactly what does dementia mean?

Changes in brain function with dementia can alter virtually everything about you.

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Studies show that one of the greatest health fears among older Americans is the fear of losing their minds to dementia in their later years. Yet despite the dread associated with the term, many people have difficulty answering the question, what is dementia?

Learning more about this condition may help provide reassurance for many, and for others, may indicate when changes in memory and other basic mental processes indicate the need for further assessment. (See also “Dementia Stages: What to Expect.“)

Dementia is a term that describes a deterioration in mental abilities that interferes with the ability to engage in the activities of daily living. Individuals with dementia show signs of decline in memory, reasoning, judgment, language and other mental faculties.

What Is Dementia? The Two Types, Explained

There are two dementia types:

  • Primary dementias—such as Alzheimer’s disease or Lewy body dementia (DLB)—involve damage to or wasting away of the brain tissue.
  • Secondary dementias are cognitive and memory loss symptoms caused by mental or physical disorders, such as vascular dementia, depression or dementia caused by thyroid problems.

Changes in brain function with dementia can alter virtually everything about you—including your personality and behavior. According to diagnostic criteria, serious memory lapses may indicate dementia if they are accompanied by at least one other symptom of cognitive decline.

Dementia symptoms may include:

  • Asking the same questions over and over.
  • Losing the ability to accomplish complex tasks, such as cooking a meal.
  • Becoming lost in once-familiar places.
  • Forgetting names of familiar people.
  • Having trouble using language, or putting words together.
  • Failing to remember regular appointments.
  • Neglecting personal hygiene—such as brushing your teeth or showering.
  • Showing signs of mental confusion.
  • Having difficulty recognizing common objects, like a toothbrush or TV set.
  • Having trouble coordinating movements.
  • Experiencing mood symptoms such as anxiety, unusual irritability, or depression.

For more on this topic, read our post “Worried About Dementia Symptoms? Train Your Brain to Fight Back.” See also the following:

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Susan Jimison Vitek

Susan Jimison Vitek served as Executive Editor of Mind, Mood, & Memory, a monthly publication sponsored by Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston that focuses on the latest developments in mental … Read More

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