Answers to some frequently asked questions about dementia.

While many Americans feel that dementia is an accepted part of growing old, the truth is that it only affects 15 percent of older Americans. Dementia can be characterized by confusion, memory loss and disorientation. Of those individuals diagnosed, an estimated 60 percent suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive mental deterioration.

What is Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer’s disease slowly affects nerve cells in the brain, beginning in a section of the brain that controls memory, and ultimately affecting other intellectual, emotional and behavioral abilities. Although scientists are actively researching the disease, no cause or cure has been identified. An adult’s chance of developing the illness is 1 in 100, with odds increasing fourfold among family members of a person suffering from the disorder.

Top of Page

What are other causes of dementia?
Forty percent of all persons diagnosed with dementia suffer from one or more of the following conditions:

  • Complications of chronic high blood pressure, blood vessel disease or a previous stroke
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, caused by a viral infection leading to rapid and progressive dementia
  • Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder that begins in middle age and has symptoms of changed personality, mental decline, psychosis and movement disturbance
  • Parkinson’s disease, which generally begins with involuntary tremors or problems with voluntary movements

Top of Page

What are the symptoms of dementia?
Common symptoms of dementia include:

  • Altered sensation or perception
  • Altered sleep patterns
  • Decrease in problem-solving skills and judgment capability
  • Fluctuating mental acuteness, confusion
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Impaired recognition
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Motor system impairment (e.g., difficulty buttoning shirt)
  • Progressive loss of memory

Top of Page

What are the reversible causes of dementia?
Elderly people may become forgetful, disoriented or confused due to a reversible condition that may mimic dementia, but these may be reversed when their causes are diagnosed and treated.

  • Diseases of the adrenal, thyroid, pituitary or other glands — These glands affect emotions, perceptions, memory and thought processes. When they don’t function, these mental processes are affected.
  • Diseases of the heart or lungs — The brain also requires a great deal of oxygen to work properly. If diseased lungs cannot draw enough oxygen into the blood or a diseased heart fails to pump enough blood to the brain, lack of oxygen can affect the brain and behavior.
  • Malnutrition — The brain requires a steady supply of proper nutrients. Poor eating habits or problems with digestion can upset the way the brain functions.
  • Medications — Because the metabolism functions more slowly in the elderly, medications stay in the body longer and reach toxic levels quickly. Multiple medications can interact, especially with alcohol, causing confusion, mood changes and other symptoms of dementia.

Top of Page

How is dementia treated?
With a goal of controlling symptoms, treatment may include hospitalization for a short time. Disorders that contribute to confusion should be treated, including heart failure, decreased oxygen intake, thyroid disorders, anemia, malnutrition, infections and psychiatric conditions. Correction of coexisting medical and psychiatric disorders often greatly improves mental functioning.

Top of Page

Find a San Diego Psychiatrist
To find a Sharp-affiliated doctor, search for a San Diego psychiatrist or call 1-800-82-SHARP (1-800-827-4277), Monday through Friday, 8 am to 6 pm.