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Dementia: Just What Is It?

by Loring A. Windblad

Dementia! A term to reckon with. Dementia - a horrible disease, not something we want have ourselves and for which we pity others who do have it. Dementia - demented, frightening, a person with a mental disease that conjures up all sorts of frightening mental images. Even the relatively benign, "children's" book Harry Potter deals with Dementors; beings who suck the soul out of the body and twist and warp the mind till there's nothing but an empty shell left.

Dementia! My Oxford English Dictionary defines it thusly:

"A mental illness in which there is a loss of reasoning power." Further: "Dementia prae-cox: schizophrenia."

A more modern definition probably goes thusly:

"Dementia: A mental condition in which there is a loss of reasoning power."

So once we look at "dementia" in real terms it no longer seems quite so frightening. But how does it happen, when does it happen, and just who gets it? And lets keep in mind that this is "a condition" and not "a disease" or "mental illness". As such it could respond to aromatherapy, diet or other medical treatment.

Its onset can be the result of an injury, as a reaction to a medication of some sort or simply the normal deterioration of old age - which we used to call senility. Hmmmmm - there's another word worthy of checking out.

Senility: my Oxford English Dictionary defines it thusly:

"Senile: suffering from bodily or mental weakness because of old age. 2: (of illness, etc.) characteristic of elderly people." Hmmmmmm, they do sound a lot alike, don't they?

The underlying cause is likely a chemical imbalance in the brain which basically has no effect unless and until triggered by an outside influence. That outside influence could be as simple as deterioration from old age, or as traumatic as an unexpected injury, or from an outside and very unrelated cause.

Here're three examples from my own personal, family observations:

My Aunty Mame: a wonderful woman but the older she got the more she seemed to not only forget things but the more she seemed to become disoriented to her surroundings. She lived into her 90's and the last few years were frightening to us all. The degeneration of old age.

My sister-in-law: A wonderful woman, mother of three devoted sons, wife to the same man for more than 60 years, as she got older she needed surgery for some minor conditions and the older she got the worse her reaction to the anesthetic. She would come out of anesthesia and "see things" - pots, dishes, silverware - and try to pick them out of the air and put them where they belonged. She was dumfounded when she couldn't pick them up - "they're right there but I can't get hold of them"! The older she got the worse her reaction to anesthesia. A reaction to a drug or medication.

My brother-in-law: He had a bad fall out of a tree when he was pruning it. He fell about 15 feet off a ladder, landed on his shoulder, broke his collar bone and a few other internal injuries. He was laid up in bed for six months and my wife (his sister) noticed toward the end of this time that his mental responses seemed to be deteriorating. It has now been 15 years since the fall and he has no cognizance of "what has been". His long term memory is fair at best. His short term memory is virtually non-existent. He can no longer drive because he has no idea of how to get where he wants to go, or even of where he wants to go. In a conversation he will repeat himself every couple of minutes forgetting that he has just said that same thing - even 5 to 10 times in the space of a quarter hour? His physical appearance: handsome, rugged, vigorous, he appears to be a healthy and vigorous man of 60ish. He is actually 82. A reaction to a severe injury.

Me, personally: In march of 2000 I had a mild stroke and again in May I had a second mild stroke. They were so mild I put them down as "pseudo-strokes", one of which I had in the summer of 1988, and did not couple them with "real strokes" until I was reading an article in Readers Digest in August about strokes. But...both I and my sweetie (my wife June) had noticed that my memory seemed to be getting worse. Oh, I've always had the ability to forget what I'm talking about in mid-sentence, and to forget a word I was trying to use before I could remember and use it! But now it was getting noticeably worse. And it remains worse. I struggle often with words I know and use everyday, including the street where I live, the connecting street to it, names of people, places and things. A reaction to strokes.

The wife of a close friend: She was a bright woman, mother of three, housewife, teacher and good friend. She got Type II diabetes and suffered from it more than most. It got much worse than Type II diabetes usually gets, she was totally losing her ability to function in the kitchen and had to be told not to cook or use the stove. But a check when it kept worsening provided a clue: she was suffering from a degenerative brain disease which would 1) destroy her short term memory (1 second) but 2) leave her long-term memory. She is fully aware of the fact that she no longer functions like she used to: she just has no grasp of the present and she is now totally physically dependent upon 100% care support for all physical functions. Onset of a degenerative disease of the brain and of unknown causes.

So five cases, five different causes, similar results but differing degrees. Simple words with frightening visualizations but not so bad when we try to understand just what it is: Dementia: Senility: two terms probably similar in meaning. More in the article Dementia: Will I Get It?


Loring Windblad has studied nutrition and exercise for more than 40 years, is a published author and freelance writer. Contact June or Loring at