Dementia is not a disease in and of itself, but rather a byproduct of other mentally degenerative conditions such as multiple strokes, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. In general, dementia is a nearly irreversible disintegration of all the higher thinking skills that keep us sane and sociable. A patient suffering from this condition can still see and hear, for example, but can no longer put all of the sensory information he or she receives together coherently. The person may form nonsensical sentences or experience complete memory loss.
This condition is often associated with the natural aging process, although its development among the elderly is not inevitable. Alzheimer's disease can destroy brain cells over time, which in turn leads to cognitive failures and eventually full-blown dementia. Some elderly people can also develop senior dementia without also contracting Alzheimer's. The forgetfulness of Alzheimer's sufferers is often replaced with the personality breakdown of a senior dementia patient. An Alzheimer's patient may still be able to perform essential functions, but a dementia sufferer often loses all ability to remain social.
Diagnosing dementia can involve a series of psychological tests measuring cognitive functions. Quite often, true dementia affects memory and executive decision skills first, followed by changes in personality and language difficulties. Only in its advanced stages do patients display the complete loss of time and space comprehension commonly associated with the disorder. Other diagnostic tests may look for signs of previous strokes or adverse drug interactions.
There is a precursor to dementia that mimics many of its symptoms. People who have been subjected to sleep deprivation, invasive surgeries, extended hospital stays or social isolation may develop delirium. Delirium can cause a loss of language comprehension, short-term memory loss and alteration of the sufferer's personality. Delirium can also devolve into the more serious first stages of dementia. Unlike this condition, however, many cases of delirium are reversible through drug regimens, counseling and stimulation of the brain.
Dementia is not considered curable at this point in time, but scientists are working to find a way to slow down the progression. Currently, most sufferers are treated in nursing homes and other extended care facilities.