Dementia is a term that describes a number of different conditions resulting from abnormal changes to the brain. It is generally not reversible, but there are many options for managing dementia.

Approximately 1 in 3 people aged 85 or older will develop some type of dementia. However, dementia is not a typical side effect of the aging process.

Individuals with dementia experience damage to cells in the brain. There are many different causes for this damage, from abnormal protein buildup to impaired cerebral blood flow.

There is currently no cure for dementia, but lifestyle changes and treatment can help prevent or manage the symptoms.

This article discusses dementia in more detail, including reversibility and treatment.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for Alzheimer’s & dementia, visit our dedicated hub.

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The word dementia describes a group of different neurological conditions that worsen with time. Dementia may include a decline in cognition severe enough to impact a person’s ability to function independently on a daily basis.

In people with dementia, nerve cells in the brain — neurons — experience damage. This damage to brain cells affects brain functions involved in processes such as memory or speech.

Symptoms

The symptoms of dementia vary according to the individual and the type of dementia they experience. Several of the most common symptoms of dementia include difficulties with:

  • remembering recent events
  • carrying on a conversation or remembering specific words
  • keeping track of bills
  • navigating through familiar neighborhoods
  • carrying out activities of daily living
  • impulse control
  • picking up on other people’s emotions
  • proper judgment
  • movement or balance
  • reading and writing
  • managing emotions or mood

Some people with dementia may also have hallucinations or delusions. These experiences can make it hard for a person to recognize what is real and what is not.

In most cases, dementia symptoms are initially mild. They generally worsen over time, and new symptoms may arise gradually. Anyone who suspects that they or a loved one is showing early signs of dementia should visit a medical professional for a full evaluation.

Learn more about dementia myths here.

Causes

Each type of dementia has a distinct cause. For example, Alzheimer’s disease has an association with abnormal protein buildup in the brain. These abnormal proteins disrupt a person’s brain function. They also damage the connections between nerve cells in the brain.

On the other hand, vascular dementia occurs because of impaired blood flow to the brain, leading to strokes. When there is disruption to the blood supply to the brain, this hinders the delivery of oxygen and blood to the brain.

Although there is no single cause for dementia, there are certain risk factors that increase the chances of developing the condition. People are more likely to develop dementia if they:

Those with a family history of dementia may also be at a higher risk. However, it is possible to reduce the risk of dementia by making lifestyle changes in adulthood.

For example, regular exercise and a healthy diet can reduce the chances of dementia. Moderating alcohol intake and avoiding smoking can also help. A person may wish to speak with a doctor to learn more about how lifestyle changes can help promote lifelong health.

Types

The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers estimate that Alzheimer’s makes up 60–80% of all dementia cases.

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, individuals may struggle to recall recent events. They may also have difficulty remembering the names of familiar people. Gradually, individuals with this form of dementia are likely to need full-time care as their symptoms worsen.

Another common type of dementia is known as Lewy body dementia (LBD). This form of dementia results from deposits of a specific type of protein that doctors call Lewy bodies.

People with LBD may at first experience symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s. Over time, they may also have hallucinations, sleep disturbances, and movement changes.

Both Alzheimer’s and LBD involve abnormal protein buildup in the brain. However, vascular dementia has an association with disruptions in the brain’s blood supply.

When blood supply to the brain is limited, this affects the healthy transportation of blood and oxygen to the brain. The lack of oxygen and blood causes damage to brain cells that leads to vascular dementia. People who experience strokes may be at higher risk of this form of dementia.

Finally, it is also possible for people to experience multiple types of dementia at once. This phenomenon is known as mixed dementia.

For example, a person can show signs of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia at the same time. Mixed dementia is difficult to diagnose, but research indicates that this condition may be more common than scientists previously thought.

Most cases of dementia are currently not reversible, but there are a number of different medications to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s. These include aducanumab, which may reduce Alzheimer’s disease progression.

Because dementia involves brain damage, researchers note that treating individuals with dementia symptoms will not reverse their condition. This is because the brain damage that occurs is permanent. There is no way to reverse damage to brain cells.

However, new research may shed light on alternative treatments for dementia, and current treatment options may slow its progress.

Pseudodementia

In certain cases, the symptoms of a given condition mimic the symptoms of dementia. People with dementia-like symptoms may incorrectly receive a dementia diagnosis. However, treating the underlying condition in these individuals will resolve the dementia-like symptoms.

For example, people with psychiatric conditions such as depression may receive a diagnosis of dementia in error. Research has shown that treating the depression can reverse the symptoms of pseudodementia.

It can be difficult for doctors to distinguish between dementia and pseudodementia. However, a recent study indicated that the size of certain brain regions can help doctors recognize pseudodementia.

Anyone experiencing dementia symptoms should visit a doctor for an accurate diagnosis. A doctor can help identify or rule out any other conditions that may be contributing to the symptoms.

Although there is no cure for dementia, there are a number of different treatments available. These treatments work by treating the symptoms of dementia.

Aducanumab is the latest medication on the market to gain approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for people living with Alzheimer’s. This drug works by reducing the buildup of certain proteins within the brain.

However, researchers require further studies to determine whether reducing protein buildup provides meaningful benefits.

Aducanumab may slow the progression of dementia, but it cannot stop the disease progression entirely.

People with dementia may eventually require a carer to help them carry out activities of daily living. They may also find relief from alternative treatments such as massage, music, or pet therapy.

Dementia is a result of progressive brain damage leading to a decline in cognition severe enough to impact a person’s ability to function independently on a daily basis. There is currently no way to reverse dementia.

Certain medications may help slow the progress of dementia, and making certain lifestyle choices in youth and adulthood may reduce the risk of developing it.

Although there is no single cure for dementia, there are many treatment options available to support individuals living with symptoms.

A person should speak with a doctor if they are experiencing symptoms of dementia.