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Center of Excellence for Alzheimer's Disease (CEAD)
at SUNY Downstate Medical Center

What is Dementia?

Dementia, also called senility, is a group of disorders that affects the brain. The disorder impairs a person's way of thinking, remembering and reasoning skills that interfere with a person's normal day to day activities. Memory loss is a common symptom of dementia. Many diseases can cause dementia such as strokes and Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common of the disorder. Other causes of dementia are Vascular Dementia, Lewy Body Dementia, Frontotemporal Dementia, and dementias associated with Parkinson's Disease and Huntington's Disease.

After Alzheimer's disease, Vascular Dementia is the second most common of dementia. Vascular dementia is caused by decrease or interrupted blood flow to parts of the brain. Risk factors that can be controlled are the same as those for heart and blood vessel disease in other parts of the body. These include high blood pressure, smoking, high blood fats or lipids including cholesterol, elevated homocysteine, and little exercise and being overweight.

The onset of vascular dementia is sudden differing from the gradual symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Reduced ability to think, remember and process information is usually sudden and often follows restricted blood flow. Most common cause of poor blood flow is a stroke. Often the progression of Vascular Dementia occurs in steps as the brain experiences further blockage over time. This pattern is described as multi-infarct dementia (this term is sometimes substituted for Vascular Dementia).

Lewy Body dementia is caused by progressive destruction of brain cells by protein deposits. Visual hallucinations is a hallmark symptom of the dementia, the person usually also has problems with concentration and other symptoms of dementia. About one third of individuals with Parkinson's disease develop dementia. Lewy bodies are often found in regions of the brain associated with Parkinson's disease. Lewy bodies are also present in some people with AD. Lewy bodies can sometimes be treated with cholinesterase inhibitors.

What used to be called Picks disease, Frontotemporal Dementia involves primarily the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. FTD is very uncommon and usually begins with substantial personality and behavior changes that precede problems with memory and language. There are no treatments in common use.