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What is Dementia?

By far, the most common question I receive is "what is the difference between Alzheimer's and Dementia?".    This question is so common because we haven't done a good job educating the others about dementia.

The answer is that Dementia is a symptom of another disease; it is not a disease in itself.  Think of it like a cough or a rash or back pain.  Really, none of these are the actual illness, they are symptoms of some underlying illness.  A cough may be from asthma, pneumonia, smoke exposure, or many other causes. A  rash may be from a drug reaction, poison ivy, or an allergy to laundry detergent.

The same is true for the symptom of dementia.  I like to think of dementia as a symptom that reflects some sort of disease that is causing a person's brain to perform well below what we would normally expect for a person of the same age, education, and genetic make up.  

Diseases that may cause the symptom of "dementia" include Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Chronic Alcohol Use, Strokes or bad circulation in the brain, HIV AIDS, and several other problems.    

Because Alzheimer's disease is by far the most common disease that causes dementia, it is easy to confuse the two and  their relationship to one another. 

I have written a summary of some characteristics of dementia that is caused by Alzheimer's disease.  Remember, though that there are several other dementias that may first present differently.  Some forms present with remarkable behavioral changes marked by inappropriate comments, disinhibited behavior (often sexual), and an apparent indifference to the inappropriateness and hurtfulness of the behavior. All the while, the same individual's memory may remain intact for a very long time.  In other instances, the dementing illness may create a dementia that is characterized by a profound disintegration of language skills.  In this instance, there may be a deterioration of language such that the individuals ability to put together meaningful sentences or use words correctly fades away.   Despite this, memory problems for events may be very minor and imperceptible, although with the loss of language, memory functions become hard to appreciate.   

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