“Senility” and “being senile” are old-fashioned terms that doctors may have used to refer to dementia. Some people may use “senility” to describe a decrease in the ability to think, concentrate, or remember.

A contemporary term that doctors use is “neurocognitive disorder” which might be either minor or major. For example, they may diagnose minor neurocognitive disorder due to Alzheimer’s disease — a type of dementia.

Below, learn more about what senility and dementia mean, as well as dementia’s symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention.

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The word refers to advancing age. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “relating to, exhibiting, or characteristic of old age [and] especially: exhibiting a loss of cognitive abilities, such as memory, associated with old age.”

A person may also use “senility” to describe intellectual decline and a reduced ability to accurately judge a situation or solve problems.

The medical community no longer uses this term.

In the past, doctors may have used “senility” to describe dementia, but this use implies that the serious features of dementia are characteristic of old age. In fact, they are not a regular part of aging.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of medical conditions that each affect the brain in a similar way. These conditions include:

Some people have mixed dementia, meaning that more than one disease causes the symptoms.

Most cases of dementia occur in people aged 65 or over. However, younger people can develop it.

It is important to highlight that while we, like many people, are referring to “dementia,” doctors are now using the term “neurocognitive disorder.” For example, they may diagnose:

  • major or minor neurocognitive disorder due to Alzheimer’s disease
  • major or mild frontotemporal neurocognitive disorder
  • major or mild neurocognitive disorder with Lewy bodies

The symptoms of dementia tend to appear slowly and gradually get worse. Everyone with dementia experiences the symptoms differently, but they may involve:

  • trouble remembering
  • difficulty paying attention
  • difficulty communicating with people
  • challenges related to reasoning, judging situations, or solving problems
  • vision problems

Signs that could point to dementia include:

  • getting lost in a familiar neighborhood
  • forgetting things that happened a long time ago
  • forgetting the name of a family member or close friend
  • needing help finishing tasks that never used to be a problem
  • using the wrong word to refer to known objects

Learn more about the early signs of dementia here.

Damage to brain cells is a major cause of dementia. The brain has billions of cells, and their communication controls everything we do. If they are damaged, they cannot communicate as well as they need to.

That said, this damage may only account for some of the facets of dementia. There are multiple theories about what causes the loss of cognitive ability in people with neurocognitive disorders, and the causes may vary by disorder.

Different parts of the brain are responsible for our memories, judgment, and movement, so the symptoms of dementia depend on which areas of the brain have damaged cells.

Alzheimer’s disease, for example, affects a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory.

Most conditions that cause dementia have no cure. Many are progressive, meaning that they get worse over time.

However, some treatments can slow the progression of the disease, and others can help reduce the symptoms.

The best treatment plan depends on the underlying cause of dementia.

For people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Alzest), or galantamine (Reminyl) can temporarily help with memory and concentration. If the disease is more severe, a doctor may prescribe memantine (Namenda) to increase the person’s attention span and ease other symptoms.

People with Lewy bodies sometimes have hallucinations or delusions, and these can lead to aggression and agitation. Aricept, Alzest, or Reminyl may help.

Health conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart problems cause vascular dementia. For people with this type, doctors slow the progression by treating the underlying problem.

While a person cannot prevent inherited dementia, most cases of dementia are not hereditary.

To help prevent dementia, a person can:

  • Always wear a seat belt in the car and a helmet when riding a bike, to prevent head injuries.
  • Keep the heart healthy by eating a balanced diet, not smoking, avoiding alcohol, and getting regular exercise.
  • Keep the mind active and have an active social life.

A person may easily mistake dementia symptoms for a regular part of aging. But because dementia gets worse over time, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Some warning signs that apply to most types of dementia are:

  • having memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • having trouble planning or solving problems
  • experiencing difficulty completing tasks that were no problem before
  • becoming confused about times and places
  • having trouble understanding visual images or judging distances
  • having new trouble with words when speaking or writing
  • misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps
  • having decreased or poor judgement
  • withdrawing from people because it is difficult to hold or follow a conversation

Anyone who recognizes any of these signs in themselves or a loved one should speak with a doctor.

Senility can be an old-fashioned term for dementia, but using the two interchangeably implies that characteristics of dementia are typical of advancing age — which is not true.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that affect the ability to think, concentrate, or remember. These conditions are more common in older adults, but they can develop in younger people.

Dementia is usually progressive, and there is often no cure, but treatments can slow the rate at which symptoms worsen and reduce their impact.

Anyone who believes that they or a loved one has signs of dementia should speak with a doctor.