Dementia, a neurodegenerative condition, manifests in various forms with diverse symptoms and causes. While a cure remains elusive, ongoing research aims to uncover treatments and preventive measures.

Dementia is characterized by a decline in cognitive abilities, impacting memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior. It can stem from various illnesses or injuries and may range from mild to severe, even causing personality changes. While some types worsen over time, others are treatable or reversible. Some experts reserve the term “dementia” for irreversible cognitive decline.

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Dementia signs and symptoms | What causes dementia? | Types of dementia | Stages of dementia | Dementia testing | Dementia treatment | Dementia prevention | Dementia life expectancy | Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s disease | Dementia from alcohol | Isn’t forgetfulness a normal part of aging? | How common is dementia? | What research is being done? | Outlook

Dementia signs and symptoms

In the initial phases, dementia may manifest in various ways:

  1. Difficulty adapting to change, resisting alterations in routine or environment.
  2. Memory lapses, particularly in short-term recollection, contrasting sharply with vivid long-term memories.
  3. Struggles with word recall, hesitating to find the right words during conversation.
  4. Repetitive behavior, like asking the same questions or retelling stories.
  5. Disorientation in familiar surroundings, trouble navigating once-familiar places or routes.
  6. Trouble following conversations or storylines, leading to confusion.
  7. Shifts in mood, including feelings of depression, frustration, or irritability.
  8. Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities or hobbies.
  9. General confusion, with people, places, or events feeling unfamiliar.
  10. Difficulty executing daily tasks, such as cooking or dressing, due to memory issues or confusion.

What causes dementia?

Dementia stems from neuron degeneration or disruptions in body systems affecting neuron function. Various conditions can lead to it, notably Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Common causes include:

Neurodegenerative diseases

“Neurodegenerative” is a term indicating the gradual breakdown and eventual death of neurons. This process disrupts neuron connections, crucial for brain messaging. Common culprits encompass Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease with dementia, vascular dementia, and chronic alcohol use disorder. Another significant cause is frontotemporal lobar degeneration, affecting the frontal and temporal lobes. This category includes frontotemporal dementia, Pick’s disease, and other related conditions.

Other causes of dementia

Dementia stems from various factors, including structural brain issues like normal pressure hydrocephalus and subdural hematoma, metabolic disorders such as hypothyroidism and vitamin B12 deficiency, and exposure to toxins like lead. Additionally, certain tumors or brain infections and medication side effects can contribute. Some types of dementia, if caught early, are reversible. Seeking medical attention promptly is crucial for diagnosis and treatment, potentially reversing symptoms.

Types of dementia

Dementia can manifest as a symptom of various diseases. Common types include Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases, vascular dementia due to reduced blood flow, Lewy body dementia caused by protein deposits in nerve cells, dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease, and frontotemporal dementia affecting language and behavior. Less common types include Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, occurring in only 1 in 1 million people.

Stages of dementia

Dementia typically worsens over time, but the progression varies for each person. Despite this, most individuals go through recognizable stages of dementia as the condition advances.

Mild cognitive impairment

As individuals age, they might encounter mild cognitive impairment (MCI), characterized by forgetfulness, difficulty recalling words, and short-term memory issues. However, not everyone with MCI will develop dementia or other cognitive impairments.

Mild dementia

In the early stages, individuals with mild dementia may maintain some independence. They might experience short-term memory lapses, personality changes like anger or depression, forgetfulness or misplacing items, challenges with complex tasks or problem-solving, and difficulty expressing emotions or ideas.

Moderate dementia

In this stage, individuals with dementia often require assistance from a caregiver or professional. Symptoms may include poor judgment, growing confusion and frustration, memory loss extending further into the past, difficulty with tasks like dressing and bathing, and notable personality changes.

Severe dementia

In the advanced stage of dementia, both mental and physical symptoms deteriorate further. Individuals may lose the ability to control bodily functions like walking, swallowing, and bladder control. Communication becomes challenging, and full-time assistance is needed. Additionally, there’s a heightened risk of infections. It’s important to note that progression through dementia stages varies among individuals.

Dementia testing

A dementia diagnosis involves a series of tests and exams, including medical history, physical exams, and lab tests. While doctors can identify dementia symptoms accurately, pinpointing the exact type can be challenging due to overlapping symptoms. Some may diagnose dementia without specifying the type. In such cases, consulting a neurologist or a geriatrician specializing in dementia diagnosis is advisable.

Dementia treatment

Treatment options for dementia mainly consist of medications and non-drug therapies. It’s essential to note that not all medications are approved for every type of dementia, and while these treatments can help alleviate symptoms, they do not offer a cure.

Medications for dementia

Two main types of medication are used to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-causing conditions:

  1. Cholinesterase inhibitors: These drugs boost acetylcholine levels, aiding memory formation, judgment, and potentially delaying Alzheimer’s progression.
  2. Memantine: It helps delay cognitive and behavioral symptoms in moderate or severe Alzheimer’s, preserving mental functions longer. Sometimes, both drugs are prescribed together, but side effects are possible. Other medications may target associated symptoms like sleep disturbances and mood changes.

Aducanumab (Aduhelm)

Aducanumab is a newly approved medication for Alzheimer’s disease, potentially slowing its progression. It’s an anti-amyloid antibody therapy administered intravenously. It targets a protein fragment known to interfere with brain cell communication. Ongoing research continues to explore its effectiveness.

Non-drug therapies

Non-drug treatments for dementia aim to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. These include:

  1. Environmental modifications: Minimize clutter and noise to enhance focus.
  2. Task modification: Break down daily activities with professional guidance.
  3. Occupational therapy: Learn safer ways to navigate tasks like cooking and driving with specialized support.

Dementia prevention

Recent research indicates that lifestyle factors may play a significant role in the development of dementia. Factors like hypertension, obesity, and social isolation could increase the risk. Adopting a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise and a balanced diet, may help prevent or delay dementia onset.

Dementia life expectancy

While individuals with dementia may live for years after diagnosis, late-stage dementia is considered terminal. Life expectancies vary greatly and are influenced by factors like age, gender, and overall health. Some studies suggest shorter life expectancies for those with dementia. Certain risk factors, including age, gender, and other medical conditions, can also impact life expectancy. However, dementia progression is unpredictable, and each person’s journey is unique.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s disease

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are distinct. Dementia is a broad term covering memory, language, and decision-making issues. Alzheimer’s, the most common dementia type, causes short-term memory loss, disorientation, and behavioral changes. Other dementia types share symptoms like forgetfulness and confusion. Treatments vary depending on the dementia type, with Alzheimer’s treatments often overlapping with other dementia treatments. Addressing the underlying cause may help with some dementia types but not Alzheimer’s. Comparing symptoms can aid in distinguishing between the two conditions.

Dementia from alcohol

Alcohol use is a notable risk factor for dementia, particularly in cases of early onset dementia. A study revealed that nearly a third of such cases were directly linked to alcohol, with 18 percent associated with alcohol use disorders. These disorders can triple the risk of dementia. However, moderate alcohol consumption, limited to one glass per day for women and two for men, may offer heart health benefits without significant memory or mental health risks.

Isn’t forgetfulness a normal part of aging?

Occasional forgetfulness is normal, but persistent memory issues could be a sign of dementia. Red flags include forgetting people’s identities or how to perform common tasks. Seek medical help if you experience these symptoms. Difficulty navigating familiar places, like getting lost on the way to the store, can also be an early sign of dementia.

How common is dementia?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 55 million people worldwide have dementia, with about 10 million new cases each year.

The number of dementia cases is rising, partly due to longer life expectancy. By 2030, the US population aged 65 and older is projected to nearly double. This growth will likely lead to an increase in dementia rates among older adults.

What research is being done?

Researchers worldwide are striving to unravel the complexities of dementia, aiming to develop preventive measures, better diagnostic tools, and more effective treatments, if not cures.

For instance, recent studies on mice suggest that a common asthma medication, zileuton, could potentially halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by targeting brain proteins associated with the condition. Another promising approach involves deep brain stimulation, which has shown potential in alleviating Alzheimer’s symptoms in older adults, much like its success in treating Parkinson’s disease.

Exciting advancements include the development of blood tests capable of detecting Alzheimer’s, offering hope for earlier diagnosis and intervention. Scientists are exploring various factors believed to influence dementia, from genetic predispositions to neurotransmitter imbalances, inflammation, and oxidative stress.

Moreover, emerging evidence suggests that lifestyle modifications, such as regular exercise and social engagement, may play a crucial role in reducing the risk of dementia. These ongoing research efforts hold promise for a future where dementia’s impact is mitigated and its progression slowed or even prevented.


As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alzheimer’s disease ranks as the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. However, individuals with dementia navigate the illness at different paces, encountering diverse symptoms along the way.

While a cure for dementia remains elusive, ongoing research offers hope for advancements in the future. If you notice memory problems or other dementia-related symptoms, seek medical advice promptly. Early diagnosis empowers individuals with dementia and their families to make informed plans for the road ahead.

Jump to section

Dementia signs and symptoms | What causes dementia? | Types of dementia | Stages of dementia | Dementia testing | Dementia treatment | Dementia prevention | Dementia life expectancy | Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s disease | Dementia from alcohol | Isn’t forgetfulness a normal part of aging? | How common is dementia? | What research is being done? | Outlook