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What is the Connection Between Aging and Dementia?

Though symptoms of dementia usually begin after the age of 60, it is not believed to be part of the normal aging process. As people become elderly, however, underlying conditions in the brain can make them more susceptible to diseases and disorders that cause dementia. Dementia describes a condition of severe loss of memory, motor skills, and cognitive reasoning. Normal aging does sometimes present some or even all of these symptoms, but not to the excessive degree that an individual suffering from dementia would exhibit. Aging and dementia are believed to go hand-in-hand, but in rare cases, dementia can be found in the young.

As people age, a number of changes usually occur in the brain, including shrinkage of neurons and a loss of their ability to reconnect with each other. Brain neurons receive signals from the brain which are then sent out to the rest of the body—when they are not working properly, or when we do not have enough of them, many day-to-day activities may become harder, if not impossible to accomplish. This is considered a normal part of aging. When a person has dementia, not only do they suffer the normal effects of aging, but they may also exhibit a death of brain cells in the region of the cerebral cortex. The brain cells that make up the cerebral cortex are said to control memory, reasoning and even personality.

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Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Three out of every four cases of dementia are attributed to the disease. In addition to a loss of brain cells, Alzheimer’s causes protein fibers and plaque to become tangled inside the brain’s neurons, interfering with normal transmission. The fact that these conditions almost always occur only in the elderly is one of the many mysteries being studied currently by researchers in the area of aging and dementia. Of all the conditions and diseases concerning aging and dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is typically the most studied, yet there is still no known cure.

There has been a great deal of research involving aging and dementia centered on the possibility of genetic transference. Certain forms of dementia, such as early onset Alzheimer’s, are believed to be inherited from a parent. The gene associated with this condition has been isolated, and testing by a geneticist can be used to diagnose a higher possible risk. Children of parents with dementia, either those with early onset or other forms, may want to consider having genetic testing. This early testing may not prevent the disease, but it may allow a person to better plan for her future care.

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