Senility is an old term for what we now call dementia. There was a time when even medical professionals thought that as a person aged they would eventually become senile. We now know that there are many causes for dementia. We also know that aging does not necessarily include dementia.

Dementia is the gradual loss of mental functions such as the ability to think, reason, remember, and plan. It results from a disease or a brain disorder. An emotional disturbance and a personality change often accompany it. Dementias are more common among the elderly, but do affect a few people in their forties and fifties. Some can even affect children. There are several medical problems that can result in dementia. Many of these conditions are treatable. Others can be only partially reversed.

The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer's disease. Few people get this before age 50. By age 65, about 3 percent of people have it. By age 85, over 20 percent of people have Alzheimer's disease. The disease is usually slow to develop. It tends to start out with people having trouble learning new things or forgetting recent events.

New medicines are being tested that may help people with this disease. If you or someone you know is diagnosed with Alzheimer's, make sure you get the diagnosis confirmed. Experts suspect that as many as half of those diagnosed with Alzheimer's may actually have something else. Overmedication, dehydration, and major depression can all look like Alzheimer's in an elderly person. All of these are treatable. If you are concerned, ask your primary healthcare provider about a referral to a neurologist or neuropsychologist.

Other dementias are usually easier to diagnose. The second leading cause of dementia is dementia due to a stroke. Other causes include thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, alcoholism, vascular disease, and AIDS. People can develop dementia from long misuse of drugs or alcohol. Also at risk are people who inhale paint or other poisonous substances.

Many people who fear that they are losing their memories refuse to go to the doctor because they do not want their fears confirmed. However, what you may get is news that the problem can be treated.

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