The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

What is Dementia

Dementia is a broad term that refers to a progressive cognitive decline, especially marked by memory deficit.

The symptoms may include memory:

  • Deficits;
  • Impaired abstract thinking;
  • Poor judgment;
  • Disorientation;
  • Depression;
  • Agitation;
  • Nervousness;
  • Sleep disorders.

In the late stages of the disease, patients become dependent on caregivers for the activities of daily living, including eating, dressing and bathing.

Dementia itself is not directly fatal, but patients may die of complications associated with immobility or reduced resistance to infectious diseases such as pneumonia.

Dementia Causes

Alzheimer's disease is the most prevalent type of dementia. Dementia may also be caused indirectly by brain tumors, head injury, viral inflammation, substance abuse, syphilis, long-term epilepsy, etc.

Dementia is also a component of the late stages of Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and AIDS, and may also appear in individuals who are chronic abusers of alcohol.

In some cases (e.g. Alzheimer's disease), symptoms progress gradually over a course of years; in others (e.g. vascular dementia), symptoms appear over a relatively short period of time and may appear to worsen in increments. 

Normally, when a patient is diagnosed with dementia, doctors first attempt to establish whether the dementia is associated with some pre-existing disease or condition such as Parkinson's disease or substance abuse, or with some trauma such as head injury or stroke.

Other conditions such as depression and sleep disorder can also cause memory deficits and other cognitive problems superficially related to dementia. A diagnosis of probable Alzheimer's disease is only made after other causes of dementia are ruled out, while a definite diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease can only be made at autopsy.

by Catherine E. Myers. Copyright © 2006 Memory Loss and the Brain