Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2001;63(4):717-718

What is dementia?

Dementia is a brain problem. People with dementia find it hard to remember, learn and communicate. After a while, this makes it hard for them to take care of themselves.

Dementia may also change their mood and personality. At first, memory loss and inability to think clearly may bother the person with dementia. Later, disruptive behavior and other problems may start. The person with dementia may not be aware of those problems.

What causes dementia?

Dementia is caused by the loss of brain cells. A head injury, a stroke, a brain tumor or a problem like Alzheimer's disease can damage brain cells. Some people have a family history of dementia.

What are some common signs of dementia?

Dementia causes many problems for the person who has it and for that person's family. Many of the problems are due to loss of memory. Some common signs of dementia are listed below. Not everyone with dementia has all of these signs.

  • Recent memory loss. All of us forget things for a while and then remember them later. People with dementia often forget things but never remember them. They might ask you the same question over and over, each time forgetting that you already answered that question. They won't even remember that they already asked that question.

  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks. People with dementia might cook a meal but forget to serve it, and might even forget that they cooked it.

  • Problems with language. People with dementia may forget simple words or use the wrong words. This makes it hard to understand what they want.

  • Time and place disorientation. People with dementia may get lost on their own street, or forget how they got there and how to get back home.

  • Poor judgment. Even a well person might get distracted and forget to watch a child for a little while. People with dementia, however, might forget all about the child and just leave the house for the day.

  • Problems with abstract thinking. Anybody might have trouble balancing a checkbook; people with dementia can forget what the numbers are and what has to be done with them.

  • Misplacing things. People with dementia may put things in the wrong places. They might put an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl. Then they wouldn't be able to find those things later.

  • Changes in mood. Everyone is moody at times, but people with dementia could have fast mood swings, going from calm to tears to anger in a few minutes.

  • Personality changes. People with dementia may have drastic changes in personality. They might become irritable, suspicious or fearful.

  • Loss of initiative. People with dementia may become passive. They might not want to go places or see other people.

What if I have any of these signs of dementia?

Talk with your doctor. Your doctor can do tests to find out if your signs are caused by dementia. The sooner you know, the sooner you can get treated.

What if a family member has signs of dementia?

If your family member has some of the signs of dementia, try to get him or her to go see a doctor. You may want to go along and talk with the doctor first before your relative sees the doctor. That way, you can tell the doctor about the way your relative is acting without embarrassing your family member.

How can I learn more?

For more information about dementia, you can contact the following groups:

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