Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(5):1051-1052

What is dementia?

Dementia is a problem in the brain that makes it hard for a person to remember, learn, or communicate. After a while, this problem makes it hard for the person to take care of himself or herself.

Dementia also may change a person's mood and personality. At first, memory loss and trouble thinking clearly may bother the person who has dementia. Later, disruptive behavior and other problems may start. The person who has dementia may not be aware of these problems.

What causes dementia?

Dementia is caused by the destruction of brain cells. Once brain cells are destroyed, they will not grow back or repair themselves. A head injury, a stroke, a brain tumor, or a problem like Alzheimer's disease can hurt brain cells. Some people have a family history of dementia.

What is the difference between dementia and delirium?

Like dementia, delirium causes memory loss, confusion, and loss of the sense of direction. However, unlike dementia, delirium is usually reversible. Certain medications can cause delirium. Once the medications are stopped, the delirium usually goes away. Another difference is that the signs usually start happening quickly with delirium, but very slowly with 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 caused by loss of memory. Some common signs of dementia are listed below. Not everyone who has dementia will have 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 they never remember them later. They might ask you the same question over and over, each time forgetting that you already answered that question.

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

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

• Confusion about time and place. People who have dementia may get lost on their own street. They may forget how they got to a certain place and how to get back home.

Poor judgment. Even a person who doesn't have dementia might get distracted and forget to watch a child closely for a little while. People who have dementia, however, might forget all about the child and leave the house for the day.

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

• Misplacing things. People who have 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 can't find these things later.

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

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

• Loss of initiative. People who have 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 earlier you know, the earlier you can talk to your doctor about treatment options.

What if a family member has signs of dementia?

If a 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 before your relative sees him or her. Then you can tell the doctor about the way your relative is acting without embarrassing your relative.

Where Can I Get More Information?

Ask your doctor.

Alzheimer's Association

American Psychiatric Association

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