What Is Dementia?

Dementia is a broad category of symptoms that can include problems with memory, judgment, language, complex motor skills, and other cognitive function. There are many types of dementia. To classify as a dementia, there must be impairment in at least two areas of cognitive functioning (not memory alone) and these impairments need to 1) affect the person’s daily functioning (e.g., change in driving, ability to manage finances or take medications) and 2) be a change from previous baseline mental function.

Dementia usually causes problems with short term memory such as inability to remember people, names, and dates. It can also cause confusion and some people may also experience changes in personality and social behavior. While most dementias are a progressive neurodegenerative disease of the brain, some causes of dementia are treatable and even reversible.

Alzheimer’s disease is currently accepted as the most common cause of dementia in persons over the age of 65. It represents about 60% of all dementias. The other common causes of dementia are vascular dementia, caused by stroke or blockage of blood supply, and dementia with Lewy bodies. Other types include alcohol-related dementia, caused by sustained use of alcohol; trauma dementia, caused by significant repeated head injury; and a rare form of dementia, frontotemporal dementia. Some forms of dementia are a mixture of causes. The clinical symptoms and the progression of dementia vary, depending on the type of disease causing it, and the location and number of damaged brain cells. Some types progress slowly over years, while others may result in sudden loss of cognitive function.

What is the purpose of a neuropsychological evaluation for dementia?

Neuropsychological evaluations include a detailed interview to obtain information about the symptoms and their course, a review of medical history, and testing. The testing portion is a means of obtaining objective measures of brain performance. It helps determine what the likely form of dementia is and complements neurological exams and neuroimaging. It helps determine what is normal aging and what is not. The results and profiles can then help not only with diagnosis but assist in treatment planning. The goals in treatment planning are to help maintain health, safety, and independence when possible.

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