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
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
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
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