What is Dementia?

The word “dementia” is a scary one to most people.  I am pursuing a master’s degree in Gerontology, and one of the main areas I am concentrating on is dementia and how it affects people.  One of the most common questions that people ask me when I tell them I am in Gerontology is about dementia.  People ask if something specific can cause it, like alcohol use, or they ask if it is normal for an aging person to eventually get dementia.  I have to admit, before I began to study this subject, and before I began to work with people who have dementia, I had a lot of questions and misunderstandings about the subject as well.

The fact is, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process.  Yes, older adults can have some level of forgetfulness or take just a bit longer to recall facts, but that process is different from the processes that lead to dementia.  Dementia is kind of a blanket term that refers to a myriad of conditions that cause memory impairment and physical changes that are progressive in nature and that interfere with a person’s ability to function.

Dementia occurs when there is a malfunction or breakdown in brain function.  The area of the brain that is affected first determines the symptoms that a person experiences.  That is why it can be difficult to diagnose a dementia at first.  Two people can have very different behaviors and abilities, and both people can have dementia.  Eventually, every lobe of the brain will be affected by the disease process, but in the beginning the affects can be more localized and difficult to recognize.

I’m also asked how to prevent dementia, and how to treat it.  Legitimate questions, to be sure, but sometimes by using the word “treat” people really mean “cure.”  There is no cure for dementia as of yet.  There are some medications that help some people, but these medicines just slow the disease process and do not stop it.  There are non-medicine interventions that also can help to slow the disease process or at least help someone with dementia feel “normal” and able to have some level of autonomy, but again they do not offer a cure for the condition.  Can it be prevented in the first place?  Maybe.  It really depends on what is causing the dementia in the first place.  Alcohol-related dementia, for example, or dementia caused by high blood pressure and stroke may be able to be prevented.  Alzheimer’s or Frontal Lobe dementia cannot.

Many of the questions regarding dementia come from a lack of knowledge about what it is and how it affects people.  It can be scary to encounter someone who has dementia when you don’t understand just what is going on or what to do.  It is scary and sad to watch the disease process happen.

The most important thing that I tell people when they ask what I do is that people with dementia are just people who need love and compassion as they navigate a scary process that will eventually lead to their demise.  A little education (research, asking questions, etc.) can go a long way toward helping to take the helpless feelings away in the face of dementia.  A little love and compassion will cover over confusion and doubt.






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