Top of the page
We all forget things as we get older. Many older people have a slight loss of memory that does not affect their daily lives. But memory loss that gets worse may mean that you have dementia.
Dementia is a loss of mental skills that affects your daily life. It can cause problems with memory, problem-solving, and learning. It also can cause problems with thinking and planning.
Dementia usually gets worse over time. But how quickly it gets worse is different for each person. Some people stay the same for years. Others lose skills quickly.
Your chances of having dementia rise as you get older. But this doesn't mean that everyone will get it.
Dementia is caused by damage to or changes in the brain. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause. Strokes are the second most common cause. Other causes include diseases such as Parkinson's disease and frontotemporal dementia.
Usually the first symptom of dementia is memory loss. Often the person with memory loss doesn't notice it. As dementia gets worse, the person may have trouble doing things that take planning. They may have trouble using or understanding words or may get lost in well-known places.
There is no single test for dementia. To diagnose dementia, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions about illnesses and life events. Your doctor may test your memory by asking you to tell what day and year it is, repeat a series of words, or draw a clock face. The doctor will also ask you what medicines you’re taking. This is called a medicine check-up. Some medicines can affect your memory or the way your mind works. These side effects of certain medicines are easy to correct, but they’re often overlooked as the cause of symptoms.
Medicines for dementia can make it easier to live with. They may help improve mental function, mood, or behaviour. An active social life, counselling, and sometimes medicine may help with changing emotions.
In early dementia, most people can function independently, take part in social activities, volunteer, or work. Your role as a care partner is important. You support the person and help them plan for the future. Encourage your loved one to make an advance care plan that states how they want to live when the dementia gets worse. And have your loved one name a person who will make care decisions if they are no longer able to make them, a substitute decision-maker. Your loved one will need more and more care as dementia gets worse. Be kind to yourself. Schedule breaks to recharge, and ask other family members or community supports for help. Home care is available to Albertans to help your loved one be safe and independent at home for as long as possible. If they need 24-hour care, then the home care nurse can help support the transition to a supportive living facility or long-term care facility.
Dementia is caused by damage to or changes in the brain. Things that can cause dementia include:
Some disorders that cause dementia can run in families. Doctors often suspect an inherited cause if someone younger than 50 has symptoms of dementia.
Usually the first symptom of dementia is memory loss. Often the person who has the memory problem doesn't notice it, but family and friends do.
People who have dementia may have increasing trouble with:
How quickly dementia progresses depends on what is causing it and the area of the brain that is affected. Some types of dementia progress slowly over several years. Other types may progress more quickly.
The course of dementia varies greatly from one person to another. An early diagnosis and treatment with medicines may help for a while. Even without these medicines, some people remain stable for months or years, while others get worse quickly.
Many people with dementia aren't aware of their mental decline.
Over time, depending on the type of dementia, the way the person behaves may change. The person may become angry or agitated, or clingy and childlike. They may wander and become lost.
Even with the best care, people who have dementia tend to have a shorter lifespan than the average person their age.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if signs of a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) develop suddenly. These may include:
Call a doctor now if a person suddenly becomes confused or emotionally upset or doesn't seem to know who or where they are. These are signs of delirium, which can be caused by a reaction to medicines or a new or worsening medical condition.
Call a doctor if you or a person you are close to has new and troubling memory loss that is more than an occasional bout of forgetfulness. This may be an early sign of dementia.
Occasional forgetfulness or memory loss can be a normal part of aging. But any new or increasing memory loss or problems with daily living should be reported to a doctor. Learn the warning signs of dementia, and talk to a doctor if you or a family member shows any of these signs. They include increased trouble finding the right words when speaking, getting lost going to familiar places, and acting more irritable or suspicious than usual.
To diagnose dementia, your doctor will:
The doctor may do tests to look for a cause that can be treated. For example, you might have blood tests to check your thyroid or to look for an infection. You might also have a test that shows a picture of your brain, like an MRI or a CT scan. These tests can help your doctor find a tumour or brain injury.
Knowing the type of dementia a person has can help the doctor prescribe medicines or other treatments.
Medicines for dementia can slow it down for a while and make it easier to live with. Medicines can't cure it. But they may help improve mental function, mood, or behaviour.
If a stroke caused the dementia, doing things to reduce the chance of another stroke may help. They include eating healthy foods, being active, staying at a healthy weight, and not smoking.
As dementia gets worse, a person may get depressed or angry and upset. An active social life, counselling, and sometimes medicine may help with changing emotions.
The goals of ongoing treatment are to keep the person safely at home as long as possible and to provide support and guidance to the caregivers.
The person will need routine follow-up visits. The doctor will monitor medicines and the person's level of functioning.
Doctors use medicines to treat dementia by:
These medicines may include:
Many behaviour problems can be managed without medicines.
In some cases, the doctor may prescribe:
The doctor may prescribe medicines for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. These drugs can't reverse existing dementia. But they may prevent future strokes and heart disease that can lead to more brain damage.
Adaptation Date: 11/23/2023
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2023 Healthwise, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.