What is Semantic Dementia?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 21 December 2018
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Semantic dementia is a form of neurological disorder characterized by damage to the semantic memory. This causes the patient to forget the meanings of words and to lose memories relating to abstract concepts. For example, a person with semantic dementia might look at and recognize a dog, but be unable to come up with the word “dog,” and would not recognize the word “dog” if it was presented.

This condition is a form of frontotemporal lobal degeneration, formerly known as Pick's disease. Several different conditions are lumped under this umbrella heading. All of them involve atrophy of the frontal lobe of the brain, leading to progressive dementia. Neurodegenerative diseases like semantic dementia can onset slowly and may progress at varying rates as a patient becomes increasingly incapacitated. As the condition progresses, the patient can develop problems like lack of motor coordination and behavioral outbursts.

This condition tends to onset in old age. There may be some genetic components, but in other cases, the origins of semantic dementia are not clear. Initially, people may simply fumble for words or use words oddly. As the condition becomes more pronounced, the patient will “talk around” an unknown word, describing something in an attempt to convey meaning without being able to use the desired word. Eventually, more and more words will be lost and it will become increasingly difficult for the patient to communicate.


Patients can become very frustrated by semantic dementia. As with many progressive neurological disorders, the patient is aware of the decline in cognitive function and may become angry and irritated. This can express in the form of emotional outbursts. Patients can also become frustrated as people around them attempt to interpret or finish sentences. As the condition progresses and the patient develops poor motor coordination and other problems, depression and other psychological symptoms can emerge as the patient struggles to adapt.

There is no cure for semantic dementia. Some medications have been shown to slow the progress of atrophy, helping patients retain cognitive function longer. Treatments like physical therapy can help patients prepare for problems like uncoordinated motor skills, and some patients also find it helpful to develop simplified communication methods so they can communicate with friends, family, and caregivers. It is important for people to remember that individuals with semantic dementia are very much aware of their surroundings and many of their memories are intact, even if they cannot express themselves.



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