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. Changes can happen over a long period of time, from months to years.
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 kind of dementia. Alzheimer's causes a steady loss of memory and how well you can speak, think, and do your daily activities.
The second most common kind of dementia is caused by a series of strokes. It's called vascular dementia. It often gets worse step by step. With each new stroke, more mental skills are lost.
Serious head injuries in the past can sometimes lead to dementia, too.
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:
If you are worried about memory loss, changes in judgement, planning or finding words, see your doctor soon. He or she can do a physical exam and ask questions about recent and past illnesses and life events. Think about bringing someone to your doctor's appointment to take notes for you.
Call a doctor right away if a person suddenly becomes confused or doesn't know who they are. Changes that happen within hours or over a few days should also be checked by a doctor right away.
Your doctor may suggest a series of tests to measure memory changes over time. These tests give the doctor an overall picture of how well your brain is working. The doctor can use the results to decide the best treatment program and help make your life safer and easier.
It is important to know that memory loss and changes in thinking can be caused by things other than dementia. These things can include health problems such as depression, a low amount of thyroid hormone, and some infections. When those things are treated, your symptoms can get better.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
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Current as of: December 7, 2017
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
& Jean S. Kutner, MD, MSPH - Geriatric Medicine, Palliative Medicine
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