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Dementia and Memory Problems

Dementia is the loss of memory and other cognitive abilities. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common cause, and the most feared. However, dementia can be due to a number of causes, including various diseases and alcohol abuse.

Some of these other causes can be treated, or at least the progression can be minimized, so it is important to get a complete evaluation of the problem. If you are concerned about dementia, we encourage you to get a thorough medical evaluation and to consider psychological or neuropsychological testing of your memory and cognitive abilities.

You also should be aware that older people can show sudden declines in memory, attention, and other cognitive abilities as a result of even minor infections, like a cold. Again, it is worth having a medical checkup whenever you see a decline in mental abilities. This is true even when someone is known to have dementia, because their condition can get much worse during the illness, and improve when the illness is cured.

Two other conditions are worth mentioning, as well. One is delirium, which is a state of acute mental confusion and disorientation. It can occur as a result of strokes, as a side effect of some medicines, and from other medical conditions. It is essential that you obtain prompt medical care if delirium occurs.

The other condition is depression. Severe depression can lead to changes in concentration and memory that look very similar to dementia. A skilled diagnostician can often differentiate these two conditions so that appropriate treatment can be offered.

Note that some weakening of memory and learning is expected as you get older, but this should not be significant enough to interfere with your ability to work, take care of yourself, meet your responsibilities, or be socially involved.

In the sections below, we talk about the symptoms of dementia and the role of psychologists in diagnosis and treatment.

Symptoms of Dementia

Dementia is characterized by symptoms like the following:

  • Significant problems with learning new information or remembering information from the past (sometimes long-ago memories are intact, but you can’t remember what you had for breakfast).
  • Repeating the same information over and over, or asking the same questions, because you don’t remember you just did it.
  • Forgetfulness, like leaving the stove on and forgetting there is something cooking on it.
  • Getting lost in familiar settings.
  • Describing events that did not happen or giving explanations that are not true, not because of any intent to deceive, but because you are automatically filling in memory gaps you don’t even know you have. This is called confabulation.
  • Processing information much more slowly than in the past, or being unable to manage tasks that you could do before (like evaluating a hand of cards).
  • Loss of ability to plan ahead or organize activities.
  • Loss of ability to understand general concepts; a tendency to become concrete and see things only in terms of specific examples rather than broader categories.
  • Difficulties with expressive language, finding words, misusing words, misnaming things, etc.
  • Difficulties with understanding language.
  • Difficulties in performing motor tasks, like dressing yourself (not due to physical limitations).
  • Wandering.
  • Difficulties with recognizing familiar objects or people.

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The Role of the Psychologist


Psychological testing can be essential in making the diagnosis of dementia. It is worth noting that 10-15% of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease do not have it. They may have another form of dementia (perhaps one that can be treated), or they might be suffering from depression, which can mimic dementia.

The psychologist uses standardized tests of intellectual functioning and memory abilities, along with the clinical history and other measures, to assess for cognitive losses and to rule out disorders like depression. Sometimes, periodic reassessment can be useful to track the progress of the dementia.

When there is a strong family history of dementia, it can be useful to obtain baseline testing before any problems develop. This can be used later for comparison, if necessary, in order to see the extent of deterioration.

A neuropsychologist can offer an even broader assessment of cognitive functioning and can pinpoint specific deficits more precisely. The neuropsychologist can do the entire assessment, or can build on the evaluation done by the clinical psychologist.


The psychologist can provide therapeutic services for the person with dementia, including support and ideas for managing the memory problems (e.g., using notes, keeping familiar objects in sight). Also, the psychologist can help the person adjust to the losses they face and assist with any depression that develops secondary to the dementia.

In addition, the psychologist can provide support for the caregivers in the family. No matter how much you love your elderly parent, the role of caregiver is very stressful, emotionally painful, and often thankless. It can be helpful to have a place where you can express your feelings, your frustrations, and your questions.

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Disclaimer:  You know, we see a disclaimer like this in every ad that lawyers put out, and it probably is a good idea for us to use one, too:  "No representation is made that the quality of the psychological services to be performed is greater than the quality of psychological services performed by other psychologists.  The outcome of assessments or psychotherapy, or individual client satisfaction, cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on many factors.  Material on this site regarding symptoms, disorders, and treatment is informational only.  Diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders requires the expertise of a trained professional."

The information on this site regarding psychological disorders and treatment comes from many sources that cannot be credited, simply because they have been integrated over the years into our general knowledge base. However, one important source is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (1994) published by the American Psychiatric Association.