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Dementia is a syndrome i.e. a group of related symptoms. It tends to affect elderly people, but can affect younger people too. Dementia is associated with the decline of the brain and its abilities. For a diagnosis of dementia to be given, there must be impairment to memory as well as one or more other executive functions. The deficits must interfere with the individuals social functioning or work life. The executive functions which can be affected may include:
Cognitive disturbances might also include agnosias (failure to recognise meanings of objects and forms), apraxias (inability to conduct purposeful movements), or aphasias (language deficits). Any impairment must represent a marked decline from a previously higher level of functioning. Memory impairment is always a feature and involves failure to learn new material or failure to recall previously learnt material. Usually both types of memory impairment are present
A person with dementia can become apathetic and have difficulties controlling their emotions. They may also behave in an inappropriate way in social situations. They may lose interest in social interactions. This can be linked to the fact that they may also lose empathy (understanding and compassion of others). Some aspects of their personality may also change. Sometimes people with dementia may also experience hallucinations or hold false beliefs. Dementia also affects a person’s mental abilities in terms of organisation and planning. Many of these symptoms make maintaining their independence difficult.
Dementia is often progressive and irreversible, though it may sometimes be arrested or there may be some recovery. This largely depends on the underlying pathology and causes of the disorder. Early interventions might also delay progression or relieve symptoms and social support networks as well as the individual's pre-morbid personality and levels of cognitive functioning may have an influence on the course of the illness, particularly in the early stages.