Dementia

Overview

Dementia is a general term for the loss of mental functions such as memory, reasoning, and thinking that is so severe it interferes with a person’s ability to function. Dementia is not a specific disease, but a group of symptoms caused by a number of diseases or conditions. Patients with dementia often have noticeable changes in behavior, mood, and personality. Some patients are more inclined to become agitated or see things that are not there. 

Causes and risk factors

Dementia is caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Diseases that cause degeneration or loss of nerve cells in the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Stroke and other diseases that affect the blood vessels
  • Nutritional deficiencies, like vitamin B12
  • Infections of the brain and spinal cord
  • Head injury
  • Depression
  • Toxic reactions to excessive use of alcohol or drugs

In some cases, patients can be treated and cured because the cause of their dementia is treatable. However, the majority of patients have irreversible, progressive causes of dementia.

Symptoms

Symptoms of dementia can vary greatly from person to person. However, to be considered dementia, at least two of the following core mental functions must be significantly impaired:

  • Memory
  • Communication
  • Ability to focus or pay attention
  • Reasoning and judgment
  • Visual perception

Dementia can be progressive, with symptoms starting slowly and gradually getting worse. If you or a loved one is experiencing memory loss or other changes in thinking ability, it’s important to see a doctor right away to determine a cause. 

Diagnosis

The neuropsychology program at the Northwell Health Neuroscience Institute provides outpatient assessments and inpatient consultations to patients. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of dementia, a neuropsychological evaluation will be performed to help understand how the affected areas of the brain are working. This consists of an interview and formal examination. The evaluation involves assessment of the following:

  • General intellect
  • Higher level executive abilities (e.g., sequencing, reasoning, problem-solving)
  • Attention and concentration
  • Learning and memory
  • Language
  • Visual-spatial abilities (e.g., perception)
  • Motor and sensory abilities
  • Academic skills
  • Mood and personality

The evaluation will be used to:

  • Identify cognitive difficulties
  • Differentiate diagnosis
  • Establish a baseline
  • Document changes
  • Plan treatments

Treatment

Treatment for dementia varies, depending on the cause. In cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other progressive types of dementia, there is no cure or treatment to slow or stop its progression. However, there are medications which may temporarily improve symptoms. 

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