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Is Dementia Reversible?

by Martha Stettinius, Dementia Expert
March 08, 2013

Question: Is dementia reversible?

Answer: Most types of dementia are not reversible. However, about 20% of the over 100 types of dementia are treatable and reversible, so it’s important, if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, to request a thorough neuropsychological evaluation.

The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease (60-80% of people with dementia), cannot be reversed, and the second most common form of dementia, vascular dementia from small strokes (up to 20%), also cannot be reversed. But a medical history may determine that the dementia is caused by depression, or drug or alcohol use, which are treatable. Likewise, lab work can identify urinary infection, which is common among the elderly and often causes confusion. Thyroid dysfunction, hormonal imbalance, and vitamin deficiencies (such as low levels of vitamin B12) can all cause symptoms of dementia. While a CT scan and MRI can find evidence of strokes and serious trauma to the brain, the damage from which is not reversible, these tests can also detect tumors, which may be treatable. Other conditions causing symptoms of dementia that can be treated include subdural hematomas (broken blood vessels, resulting from a head injury, that put pressure on the brain), and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Also ask a doctor about the prescription medications available for Alzheimer’s. These medications cannot reverse the disease, and they do not slow the progression, but they can lesson the symptoms for about three years. Research suggests that a combination of two types of medications—Namenda plus a cholinesterase inhibitor such as Aricept—is more effective at relieving the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease than treatment with only one type. A combination also helps lessen the side effects of Alzheimer’s medication, such as gastrointestinal issues.

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Martha Stettinius was a “sandwich generation” caregiver for 8 years for her mother with dementia, and is the author of the book “Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir.” An editor with a master’s in English Education from Columbia University, she blogs for and serves as a volunteer representative for New York State for the Caregiver Action Network.

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