Dementia is not a specific disease but rather a syndrome of mental dysfunction. It is marked by memory loss, difficulty with decision making and impairment of rational thinking. Various mental processes are affected to different degrees and dementia may not be exactly the same in every affected person. What is similar however, is that the person cannot conduct different daily activities without posing a threat to themselves and others or behave in a socially acceptable manner.
Not every older person will suffer with dementia. In the past, the term senility was widely used to describe an age-related dementia also known as senile dementia. It is now known that senile dementia is not an inevitable consequence of aging. In fact in many of these cases of dementia may be linked to other diseases which are not diagnosed. The most common such disease in the elderly is Alzheimer’s disease, and this type of dementia is also known as Alzheimer’s dementia.
The exact reason why dementia is more likely in the elderly is not clearly understood in every instance. Some diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are much more common in the senior years, and rare or almost never occurs in younger people. These diseases can eventually progress to dementia. Other types of dementia like vascular dementia are a consequence of diseases like a stroke. Age-related changes in the blood vessels, elevated blood cholesterol levels and high blood pressure are known to increase the risks of a stroke, and therefore vascular dementia.
In the strict sense of the word, dementia is not a psychological problem as such but rather a psychiatric problem. Unlike depression and eating disorders, to name but a few, dementia is not a problem with a person’s mental and emotional state in terms of coping with life stresses and outlook on life. Instead there is mental dysfunction arising with damaged areas of the brain, abnormal levels of brain hormones known as neurotransmitters or irregularities in the brain structure. Counseling is not a tool to help a person with dementia as they may need institutional care and medication.
In most cases dementia is incurable. The condition becomes progressively worse over time and medication may at most delay the progression but not stop it altogether. Sometimes dementia is a temporary state related to abnormalities in the body like excessively high glucose levels, toxins and alcohol. Dementia may therefore resolve in these cases but not always. It largely depends on permanent changes and dysfunction in the brain chemistry, structure and functioning.
Dementia itself is a state of mental dysfunction and not life threatening. However, the causes of dementia may eventually result in death. Furthermore, dementia impairs normal mental processes to a degree that a person may place themselves in danger as they may not have any perception of the consequences of their actions. This may include driving recklessly, wandering around in unsafe areas or operating electrical appliances and heavy machinery that can lead to accidents.
What is dementia? – Alzheimer’s Society dementia brain video
Five ways you can help a family with dementia