Dementia is a condition that affects a person's ability to think, remember and communicate over time. The causes are characterized as the decay of brain cells and brain shrinking. In some cases, dementia is caused by a head injury or stroke.

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Understanding Dementia

What is dementia?

Dementia has a range of symptoms that indicate a person’s brain is losing function. With dementia, a person’s ability to think, remember, and communicate gets worse over time. These changes are permanent. This process occurs over the years and can progress quickly or slowly, depending on the underlying cause.

At first, a person may sometimes be forgetful or confused. Symptoms may be mild at first, like having trouble managing finances or keeping track of appointments. As the condition worsens, questions will be asked over and over. Basic information may be forgotten. Over time, he or she will have trouble following directions and doing daily tasks. The person will have trouble talking with and understanding others. Eventually, a person with dementia may forget who people are and not know where he or she is. The person may also be moody or restless.

Sometimes dementia can occur suddenly. For example, a stroke or head injury can cause permanent difficulty with thinking and communication. In such cases, people may have some improvement early on, and dementia may not get worse with time.

Symptoms of dementia

Symptoms differ depending on which parts of the brain are affected and the stage of the disease. The most common symptoms include:

  • Memory loss, including trouble with directions and familiar tasks.

  • Language problems, such as trouble getting words out or understanding what is said.

  • Trouble with planning, organizing, concentration, and judgment. This includes people not being able to recognize their own symptoms.

  • Changes in behavior and personality.

How dementia affects the brain

The brain controls all the workings of the mind and body. Some parts of the brain control memory and language. Other parts control movement and coordination. With dementia, nerve cells in the brain are gradually damaged or destroyed. Why this happens is not yet clear. But over time, parts of the brain begin to shrink (atrophy). This often starts in the part of the brain that controls memory, reasoning, and personality. Other parts of the brain may not be affected until much later in the illness.

The stages of dementia

Dementia is a progressive disease. This means it gets worse over time. Symptoms differ for each person, but there are 3 basic stages. Each may last from months to years:

  • Early stage. A person may seem forgetful, confused, or have changes in behavior. However, he or she may still be able to handle most tasks without help.
  • Middle stage. More and more help is needed with daily tasks. A person may have trouble recognizing friends and family members, wander, or get lost in familiar places. He or she may also become restless or moody.

Late stage. Dementia can cause severe problems with memory, judgment, and other skills. Help is needed with nearly every aspect of daily life.

Treating dementia

Right now, there’s no cure for dementia. But with proper care, many people can live comfortably for years:  

  • Medicines are a key part of treatment. Some types can help slow the progression of symptoms, such as memory loss. Others can help ease mood, behavior, and sleep problems. These medicines work for some people but not all.
  • Activity and exercise are good for the body and mind. They may even help slow the progression of the disease. Simple, repetitive activities are good choices.
  • Regular healthcare provider visits help keep track of symptoms and overall health.
  • The sleep-wake cycle can be mixed up in people with dementia. They may function better being up at night and sleeping during the daytime.  
  • Social interactions are important to maintain. 

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