What Is Dementia?

Dementia describes the gradual deterioration of intellectual abilities and behavior that eventually interferes with customary daily living activities, including balancing the checkbook, keeping house, driving your car, involvement in social activities and working. This may also include changes in personality and emotions.

Dementia is caused by ongoing damage to cells in the brain. The brain controls all the functions of the mind and body. Some parts of the brain control memory and language; other parts control movement and coordination.

With dementia, nerve cells in the brain are gradually damaged or destroyed. Why this occurs is not yet clear, but over time, parts of the brain begin to atrophy (shrink). Brain atrophy often starts in the part of the brain that controls memory, reasoning and personality. Other parts of the brain may not be affected until much later in the illness.

Dementia influences all aspects of mind and behavior, including memory, judgment, language, concentration, visual perception, temperament and social interactions. Although dementia symptoms are eventually obvious to everyone, in the early stages special evaluations are necessary to demonstrate the abnormalities.

Dementia is not a single disease, but a set of symptoms and signs related to multiple diseases or brain injuries. Researchers have found as many as 50 causes for dementia, including vascular related causes, kidney and liver disease, thyroid disease, drug and alcohol abuse and vitamin B12 deficiency.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting about three quarters of all dementia patients. While the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are similar to other forms of dementia, the physiological changes in the brain can be very different. 

If you have mild cognitive impairment—slight but persistent memory loss that doesn’t interfere with your activities of daily living—you should talk about those symptoms with your physician.

The Neurobehavior and Memory Clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital

The Neurobehavior and Memory Clinic is staffed by physicians from the Northwestern Medical Group, a multispecialty group practice of the full-time faculty at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Offering a comprehensive array of diagnostic, therapeutic and innovative care, the clinic has a multidisciplinary staff that includes behavioral neurologists, neuropsychologists, neuropsychiatrists and licensed clinical social workers.

In addition, the Northwestern Medical Group Division of Geriatrics provides consultation and comprehensive interdisciplinary services for the physical, emotional and social wellbeing of healthy and frail elderly patients with complex medical and psychosocial problems, including dementia.

The Northwestern Medicine Department of Neurology seeks to provide the highest quality care and treatment for patients with neurological disorders, while advancing new therapies and uncovering the causes and cures of neurological diseases. Our physicians have areas of subspecialty interest in neurology and many of them are national leaders in their field. The clinical practice operates in conjunction with the Neuro Testing Center, which provides a full spectrum of neurodiagnostic services.

The Northwestern Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences offers comprehensive consultation, diagnosis and treatment of a full range of adult and older adult mental health disorders. Inpatient and outpatient treatment are offered.

The board-certified neurologists at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital are trained in the diagnosis and treatment of nervous system disorders, including diseases of the brain, spinal cord, nerves and muscles. They diagnose and treat patients with a full range of neurological disorders, including dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated five million Americans: 10 percent of people over age 65 and nearly 50 percent of those over age 85. Researchers are working diligently to uncover the cause and develop a cure. Until they succeed, the multidisciplinary team at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital can help you and your family deal with the physical and behavioral changes of Alzheimer’s with experience, compassion and the latest treatment protocols.

Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital Movement Disorders and Neurodegenerative Diseases Center

Your movement matters—at home, at work, even while doing the common tasks that everyone can take for granted. If you have a movement disorder, you deserve a level of care that can get you back to doing the things you love, with confidence and peace of mind.

The Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital Movement Disorders and Neurodegenerative Diseases Center uses an interdisciplinary team approach to provide individualized care that optimizes your treatment, outcomes and experience. Your care is provided by a focused and experienced team that includes specially trained neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuropsychologists, nurses, counselors and rehabilitative specialists who offer advanced treatment options and access to support and resources.