It's happening to us too; our dad is becoming progressively more confused as time goes on. Is he mentally ill, or is it something else? Yes, it's heartbreaking, and it's very scary, but we are nevertheless going to be there for our moms and dads as they totter off into antiquity. The first thing we did after the doctor told us that our dad has dementia was to find an answer to the question: Is dementia a mental illness? Here are our thoughts on this subject.

Is Dementia a Mental Illness?

So, is dementia a mental illness? Come to find out, dementia is not a mental illness. Dementia is simply a progressive decline in mental faculties such as memory and concentration, problem-solving, and higher thinking skills.

Dementia is a chronic and progressive syndrome. A syndrome can differ from a disease in that diseases usually have clearly defined causes and clearly identified symptoms and (usually) specific treatments. So while a syndrome can be an illness, the question, “Is dementia a mental illness?” is answered with a simple no.

What Is Dementia? Is It like a Mental Illness?

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Dementia is a (typically) chronic, progressive syndrome in which there is deterioration in the ability to process thought. This decline in the ability to process thought is more pronounced than that which is expected with normal aging. Dementia can wreak havoc on the following functions:

  • Memory
  • Thinking
  • Orientation
  • Comprehension
  • Calculation
  • Learning capacity
  • Language
  • Judgment

Dementia does not alter a person's level of consciousness. If there is an alteration in the level of consciousness, it is usually due to some other reason. Dementia can have the same elements that can be found in some mental illnesses, but dementia is not a mental illness.

If Dementia Is Not a Mental Illness, Then What Causes Dementia?

Since the answer is "no" to the question is dementia a mental illness, what is dementia? Dementia can be caused by disease or injury, such as Alzheimer's disease or a stroke. Dementia occurs because nerve cells in the brain become damaged. The presentation of dementia (the symptoms) depends upon which area of the brain has had damage to nerve cells.

Dementia can be progressive, which means that the deterioration in mental function continues and is not reversible. There are other disorders that are connected to dementia in that dementia is a result and not a cause. There are some conditions that create the symptoms of dementia, but they, unlike dementia, can be reversed.

Progressive Dementia

To further answer the question of whether dementia is a mental illness, it may help to know the types of progressive dementias that are irreversible.

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Vascular dementia
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Mixed dementia

Dementia in Other Linked Disorders

While mental illness may go hand-in-hand with other diseases, dementia remains a syndrome within other linked disorders.

  • Huntington's disease
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Parkinson's disease

Reversible Dementia-Like Disorders

Before we accepted our dad's diagnosis of dementia, we need to make sure that his symptoms are not reversible. Some presentations of dementia are the result of one of the following issues, all of which can be reversed:

  • Infections
  • Immune disorders
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Nutritional imbalance
  • Medication reaction
  • Nontraumatic brain disorders
  • Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies or overdoses

Dementia Is Non-Exclusive

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Just when we thought we had a grip on the types of dementia, we learn that, although Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia (up to 70 percent of cases), dementia can be generic to the point that mixed forms of dementia can appear within the same person. One way to reduce the anxiety stemming from trying to put your loved one into one category or any other is to just try focusing on the symptoms and the ways that you can keep them safe and living with the best quality of life they can possibly have.

What Are the Psychological Symptoms of Dementia?

Perhaps it is the nature of the symptoms that have many people asking, is dementia a mental illness? That is because dementia can present with psychological changes, including:

  • Personality changes
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations

It's no wonder so many of us are afraid when our loved one begins to exhibit these symptoms; they are also symptoms of mental illness. And no wonder so many of us subconsciously revert back to our childhood-like fears regarding mental illness. It's not just the old scary movies that cast the mentally ill as evil; it is also because society is only now realizing that mental illness, like dementia, is a very common human condition: perhaps more common than we would like to admit.

What Are the Cognitive Symptoms of Dementia?

Perhaps it is the cognitive decline that is so heartbreaking. We know it's hard to watch your mom and dad go downhill, because it's hard for us too. Some cognitive changes you may see include:

  • Memory loss
  • Communication disability
  • Problems with completing complex tasks
  • Problems with planning and organizing
  • Problems with motor skills, including coordination
  • Confusion and disorientation

Do Dementia Symptoms Appear All at Once?

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Dementia is usually chronic and progressive. Symptoms are usually noticed by a spouse or someone else who is close enough to the person to notice when the changes began arriving in their earliest, subtle manner. Dementia symptoms can be grouped into 3 stages, but keep in mind that each person is different, so if your loved one isn't following a set pathway, don't be alarmed.

Early Stage

It is at this time that symptoms can be missed because they are so gradual. Don't feel bad if you think back and realize that changes were occurring and you didn't catch them; it is exactly the people who are closest who often cannot see the early changes:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Losing track of time
  • Becoming lost in familiar places

Middle Stage

It is at this time that symptoms are usually detected because the loss of function is creating problems, not only with the person's ability to perform the activities of daily living, but with safety as well. This stage can include the following symptoms:

  • Forgetting names and recent events
  • Becoming lost within home
  • Increasing difficulty with communication
  • Increasing inability to perform personal care independently
  • Noticeable behavior changes such as wandering and asking same questions

Late Stage

It is at this time that we must definitely intervene, including making choices we wish we didn't have to make. Physical symptoms, memory, and cognition are severely impaired. Unless we are blessed with the resources needed to safely take care of our loved ones, we must often find help for them outside of the home. In this stage of dementia, the following symptoms are common:

  • Unaware of time and place
  • Inability to recognize relatives and friends
  • Becoming increasingly dependent on others for self-care
  • Difficulty walking
  • Behavior changes that may include aggression and violence

Are Treatments for Dementia the Same As for Mental Illness?

Although there are successful treatments for mental illness, at this time there is no treatment for dementia that can cure or halt its progression. Rather, supportive measures are undertaken to provide care and safety and as much quality of life as possible. The care, safety, and quality of life for the caregivers must also be considered when planning interventions for a person with dementia.

Some interventions include early diagnosis so that early goals can be established and evaluated, heath care providers can identify the existence of underlying or concurrent health and psychiatric conditions, and everyone can develop a plan that optimizes physical health, safety, well-being, and mental activity. These interventions can also include developing a plan of care to address psychological and sometimes aggressive behavior patterns, developing a plan of care for the safety, support, and well-being of caregivers, and investigating and optimizing available financial resources.

Final Thoughts on Dementia versus Mental Illness

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On the one hand, it came as quite a relief to us that dementia is not a mental illness. On the other hand, it was rather disheartening because most mental illnesses can be treated to where those who are dealing with mental disorders can still participate in society and in interpersonal relationships and remain safe.

Dementia is a syndrome that encompasses a group of symptoms that can be identified as occurring more or less within 3 stages. Despite the information that serves to identify, classify, and promote awareness regarding dementia, we must strive to remember that each person is in an individual, and not every person suffering from dementia will suffer it in the same way.

For now, armed with the knowledge that dementia is not a mental illness, we will develop, monitor, and update a plan of care that will promote optimum safety, health, and well-being for our loved one suffering from dementia.

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