Dementia is a general loss of mental abilities. It can include a loss of ability to think, reason, learn and understand. To be considered dementia, these mental losses must be severe enough to interfere with day-to-day activities. People with dementia must have:

  • Memory problems
  • Mental loss that is severe enough to cause problems with one or more of the following:
    • Language
    • Visuospatial function
    • Executive function (foresight, planning, anticipation, insight)
    • Learned motor skills

What Causes Dementia?

Causes of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Brain damage after multiple small strokes
  • Lewy body disease
  • Alcoholism
  • AIDS
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Huntington's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other prion disorders
  • Frontotemporal dementia (including Pick's disease)
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • Untreated syphilis
  • Toxic levels of metals, such as aluminum, which can sometimes occur in people who have dialysis treatment
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Thiamine deficiency
  • Thyroid dysfunction

Who is at Risk for Dementia?

Increasing age is the most common factor that increases your chance of developing dementia. Other factors include:

  • Family members with dementia
  • Down syndrome
  • Apolipoprotein E status (a genetic risk)
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Multiple strokes
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Vitamin deficiency
  • Chronic drug use
  • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy
  • Repetitive head trauma (may occur with contact sports)

Dementia Symptoms

Symptoms often begin mildly and get more severe over time. Symptoms vary according to the cause of the dementia, but often include:

  • Increasing trouble remembering things, such as:
    • How to get to familiar locations
    • The names of family and friends are
    • Where common objects are usually kept
    • How to do simple math
    • How to do usual tasks, such as cooking, dressing or bathing
    • How to drive
  • Having difficulty concentrating on tasks
  • Having difficulty completing sentences due to lost/forgotten words (may continue to a complete inability to speak)
  • Forgetting the date, time of day or season
  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings
  • Being withdrawn, losing interest in usual activities
  • Having mood swings
  • Having personality changes
  • Walking in a slow, shuffling way
  • Having poor coordination
  • Losing purposeful movement

Diagnosing Dementia

Your doctor may diagnose dementia through:

  • An extensive medical history from you and your family
  • Observing your behavior
  • A physical exam
  • Tests for your nervous system
  • Mental status and psychological tests

There are no blood tests or exams that can diagnose Alzheimer's disease. Certain types of brain imaging such as a SPECT or a PET scan may aid in a diagnosis. Tests to rule out other causes of dementia and other medical conditions that may mimic dementia include:

  • Blood tests
  • Lumbar puncture 
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)

Imaging tests take pictures of internal body structures. These may include:

  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

Treating Symptoms of Dementia

Currently, there are no treatments to cure many types of dementia. Some medication may help to decrease your symptoms of dementia or slow its course.


There are two types of medications that may help reduce your symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. 

People with dementia often develop psychiatric symptoms. You may need appropriate treatment, such as:

  • Antidepressants
  • Antianxiety medications
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Antipsychotics

Lifestyle Management

People with dementia can benefit from support and changes in their environment. These include:

  • Adapting your home to keep you safe
  • Providing a calm, quiet, predictable environment
  • Providing appropriate eyewear and hearing aids, easy-to-read clocks and calendars
  • Participating in music therapy and/or dance therapy
  • Participating in physical and occupational therapy for daily activities
  • Encouraging light exercise to reduce agitation and relieve depression
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Discussing healthcare wishes with family members and doctors 
  • Appointing a healthcare proxy and a legal power of attorney


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.