Dementia: Its Symptoms, Causes, and Diagnosis

by Samantha Jordan, Psy.D.

Each year, many individuals, along with their families and loved ones, are faced with a diagnosis of dementia that can be very confusing and frightening. Understanding what dementia is and its symptoms allows for the most appropriate treatment and the best quality of life possible.

What is dementia?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association website (http://www.alz.org/facts/downloads/ff_infographic_2015.pdf), every 67 seconds, someone in the United States develops dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. There are approximately 47.5 million people worldwide living with some form of dementia (World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/dementia/en/).

Signs and symptoms

Dementia describes a set of symptoms, of which at least two types of symptoms are severe enough to impair daily functioning. Dementia causes damage to brain cells that can lead to the inability of that brain region to carry out its functions normally. Dementia is not a part of the normal aging process, such as poorer short-term memory functioning that occurs as we age due to the slow loss of brain cells as we age beyond our 20s (Medical News Today website, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/142214.php). The following symptoms and behaviors are associated with dementia and are considered warning signs:  

  • memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • changes in problem solving and planning
  • difficulty completing familiar tasks at work, leisure tasks, or instrumental activities of daily living
  • confusion with time or place
  • trouble with visual perception and spatial relationships
  • new struggles in speaking or writing (e.g., word-finding difficulty, stopping in the middle of a conversation and not know how to continue or repeating himself)
  • misplacing items and being unable to retrace steps to find them
  • decreased or decline in judgment; withdrawal from work or social activities
  • changes in mood and personality

(Alzheimer’s Association website, http://www.alz.org/national/documents/checklist_10signs.pdf)

What causes dementia?

All dementias are caused by progressive brain cell death that happens over time. The cell death can occur from cerebrovascular disease such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, HIV infection, disorders from certain types of proteins, and some reversible factors such as certain vitamin deficiencies, thyroid abnormalities, depression, and medication interactions (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/142214.php#what_causes_dementia).

What if I suspect that a loved one or I have dementia?

Share concerns about changes in thinking, memory, emotions, and day-to-day functioning with your primary care physician who can order lab tests, conduct a physical examination, and take a careful medical history. Referral for a neurological examination and neuropsychological assessment are most often part of the diagnostic process. At Atlanta Area Psychological Associates, P.C. we conduct thorough interviews with the client and their collateral informants to gather information about the above-mentioned changes as well as formally administer several different cognitive tests to quantify deficits and residual strengths in order to aid in diagnostic clarity.