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Introduction to Cognitive Disorders

Alzheimers Disease and other Cognitive Disorders

"Cognition" is a word that mental health professionals use to describe the wide range of mental actions that we rely on every day. Cognition involves many different skills, including:

  • perception (taking in information from our senses)
  • memory
  • learning
  • judgment
  • abstract reasoning (thinking about things that aren't directly in front of us)
  • problem solving
  • using language
  • planning.

We take many of these skills for granted as we go about our routine activities. For instance, eating breakfast in the morning is a complex task that involves multiple steps. First, we need to be aware of the time (health care professionals call this "being oriented to time") and realize that it is appropriate to have an early meal. Next, we need to decide what to eat, which involves generating different meal options and making a choice. Then, we need to follow the correct steps to prepare the meal. Even somethi...More

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What are cognitive disorders?

  • "Cognition" is a word that mental health professionals use to describe the wide range of mental actions that we rely on every day. Cognition involves many different skills, including:
    • perception (taking in information from our senses)
    • memory
    • learning
    • judgment
    • abstract reasoning (thinking about things that aren't directly in front of us)
    • problem solving
    • using language
    • planning.
  • Damage to any part of the brain can result in cognitive problems.
  • Most mental health professionals now believe that the majority of mental disorders (if not all of them) are caused or influenced by brain chemistry or another medical issue that affects how the brain functions.

For more information

What are the causes of a cognitive disorder?

  • There are many other possible causes and types of cognitive disorders.
  • It would take an entire book to list all the possible causes of cognitive disorders and the causes of what is often referred to as cognitive dysfunction.
  • Cognitive dysfunction is a change in thinking like the changes that happen in cognitive disorders but is not a diagnosable disorder like dementia.
  • Some of the major causes of cognitive disorders/dysfunction include:
    • Genes: Genetic influences appear to play a role in many different cognitive disorders.
    • Head Injury: Head injuries can produce significant cognitive dysfunction. They can be a source of disorders like dementia or amnesia.
    • Diseases and Infections: There are many bacteria, viruses, and disease conditions that can affect the brain and lead to cognitive dysfunction or a cognitive disorder.
    • Brain Tumors: Tumors that happen in the brain or in the coverings of the brain can affect the area of the brain where they are located.
    • Exposure to Toxic Substances: There are many substances that can affect the functioning of the brain and lead to cognitive disorders or cognitive dysfunction.
    • Malnutrition or other Lifestyle Factors: Not eating properly, getting sufficient exercise, or other factors associated with the person's lifestyle can lead to the development of a cognitive disorder.

For more information

Can cognitive disorders be cured?

  • There are many conditions that can result in a person developing a neurocognitive disorder. Some of these conditions can be reversed and others cannot be reversed currently.
  • Dementia is a term that refers to a gradual or sudden loss of a person's cognitive abilities. Some of these conditions can be reversed fully or partially.
  • Some examples of forms of dementia that are not reversible currently include:
    • Alzheimer's disease.
    • Lewy body dementia.
    • Dementia associated with Huntington's disease.
    • Frontotemporal dementia.
    • The dementia associated with an HIV infection
  • Some conditions that can produce neurocognitive disorders that may be reversed are:
    • Depression
    • Other neurocognitive disorders that are the result of emotional factors
    • Certain forms of delirium
    • Neurocognitive disorders associated with a vascular problem
    • Neurocognitive disorders associated with a head injury
    • Neurocognitive disorders associated with the use of drugs or medications

For more information

What is Dementia?

  • Dementia is not a specific disease itself.
  • It is an overall term used to describe the symptoms and the effects of symptoms that happen because of certain types of diseases or medical conditions.
  • Dementia happens when areas of the brain that are involved in functions such as learning, memory, language, and making decisions are affected by a disease, an infection, or some type of medical condition.
  • The results of these conditions significantly interfere with the person's ability to function.
  • Alzheimer's disease is a form or type of dementia.
  • People that develop dementia may have difficulty with:
    • Learning new information or recalling (remembering) information.
    • Problems with attention and concentration.
    • Expressing themselves verbally.
    • Understanding spoken or written language.
    • Making decisions.
    • Understanding how objects in the environment are related to one another.
    • Orientation such as not being able to remember the month, year, or where they are.
    • Emotional functioning such as having issues with severe depression or anxiety.
  • The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, but there are many other known causes of dementia. Other relatively common forms of dementia are Vascular dementia, Dementia with Lewy Bodies, Mixed dementias, reversible types of dementia.
  • Other types of dementia account for a very small proportion of all types of dementia. These conditions include the dementia associated with HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, frontotemporal dementia, and many other conditions.

For more information on Dementia and its Causes

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

  • Alzheimer's Disease is the most frequent cause of dementia and is not a normal part of aging or "just what happens when we get old."
  • There are several differences between normal aging and Alzheimer's Disease:
    • Memory Changes - Changes in memory are the main features that happen in people with Alzheimer's disease.
    • Language Abilities - In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, people may develop problems with language comprehension. This means that they have trouble understanding spoken words and sentences. This often first appears as difficulty following instructions from others.
    • Problem Solving - Another area that is severely affected in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease is the person's ability to solve problems and make decisions. At first, the person may have trouble solving problems such as calculating how much they owe at the grocery store or paying their bills. Later, even simple decisions such as how to open a can of soup can become an issue.
    • Self-care and Other Areas: As the disease continues to get worse the mental changes that happen in the person may cause them to have issues caring for themselves. This might include remembering to bathe, how to dress themselves, and take care of their basic needs. Other mental abilities can also be affected.
  • The organization, Alzheimer's Disease International, suggests that overall Alzheimer's disease accounts for 70%-75% of all dementia cases.
  • In industrialized nations the diagnosis of dementia ranges from between 5% - 10% in individuals in their 70s. This risk increases significantly as people age with most sources reporting a sharp increase for every decade after the age of 65.
  • Researchers report that the development of any form of dementia is due to the interaction of many factors. Thus, as a person gets older there must be other factors that interact with the aging process that result in an increase in the chance to develop Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

For more information on Alzheimer's Diease
For more information on causes
For more information on diagnostic criteria
For more information on warning signs
For more information on how it is diagnosed
For more information on how it is treated

Can Dementia and Other Cognitive Disorders be prevented?

  • Research does suggest that there may be several activities that most people can engage in that will either significantly decrease the risk that they will develop Alzheimer's disease or will delay the onset of the disorder.
  • These options are often referred to as protective factors or behaviors.
  • Staying Active: Research has consistently reported that remaining active is an important protective factor for many different diseases and conditions that may happen as one gets older. The research has also shown that staying physically active is a very powerful protective factor against age-related diseases and conditions.
  • Getting Good Nutrition: Research has also indicated that good nutritional practices are important preventive factors that can help protect someone against age-related diseases and disorders like Alzheimer's disease.
  • Staying connected with others: Continuing to participate in activities with other people is an important protective factor against all sorts of physical and mental age-related problems. People can significantly decrease the risk of developing disorders like Alzheimer's disease and other dementias by doing things like attending talks or lectures, going to church, playing cards, or just being with other people and interacting with them.
  • Continuing to get regular medical checkups: It is extremely important for older people to make sure that they are up-to-date on all their medical checkups. They also need to continue to follow the instructions of their doctor regarding any medications or the treatment for any conditions. This includes regular dental checkups.

For more information 

What coping skills can someone with dementia use?

  • Do not be afraid to ask for advice from your doctor regarding how to handle this new situation.
  • Confide in family and friends and explain the situation to them as soon as possible.
  • If possible, have family and close friends meet with a doctor and the treatment providers to discuss the situation and potential approaches/coping methods that everyone can work together on.
  • Consider joining a support group.
  • Get treatment for emotional responses such as the start of depression or anxiety.
  • Start a journal to record your reactions, thoughts, feelings, etc.
  • Make use of strategies that can aid you.
  • Change your diet, so that you are eating less junk food, less salt, less carbs, fewer fatty foods, etc. Try to eliminate any use of alcohol except for an occasional alcoholic beverage. Eating healthy can make you feel better.
  • Discuss your use of caffeine with your doctor.
  • Stay as active as possible.
  • For people who are still working, it may be a good idea to discuss the situation with your supervisors to prepare for the future.
  • Stay updated on your treatment.
  • Organize your life to make it as simple and routine as possible.
  • Make sure to plan for the future. If you have not already assigned a legal guardian or power of attorney, this is the time to do that while you can still make these decisions without significant difficulty.
  • Make sure that you always carry identification on you. Getting an identification bracelet with an emergency contact number is a good idea for anyone.
  • Don't give in no matter how difficult it seems.

For more information

What coping skills can a caregiver of someone with dementia use?

  • Do your best to understand dementia. Ask questions of treatment providers, read material, and make sure that you understand the basics about dementia.
  • Do your best to understand caregiving. Read books and materials on effective caregiving..
  • Attend to your personal needs in the same way and with the same manner of care that you attend to the needs of the person that you are caring for.
  • Understand and learn about caregiver burnout. This way you can recognize the signs and symptoms of potential burnout and address them.
  • Part of being an effective caregiver is understanding when to take control of the situation, and went to give control to someone else.
  • Ensure that your expectations of the person that you are caring for are realistic.
  • Work with the doctors and other healthcare workers to ensure the best care and setting for your loved one. Do not be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.
  • Always immediately attend to the medical needs of the person you are caring for.
  • Do not put off legal matters such as guardianship issues, power of attorney issues, etc.
  • Plan to do things with the person you are caring for. Do not simply become a waitperson.
  • Remember to adjust your expectations accordingly. Work with treatment providers to understand the person's level of functioning and capabilities. Be ready to change your expectations according to the level of decline that the person experiences.
  • Again, when in doubt, ask for assistance. Do not be afraid to bother physicians, nurses, or other healthcare workers if you have a question about anything.

For more information


News Articles

  • Can Seniors Handle Results of Alzheimer's Risk Tests?

    As researchers hone in on ways to detect whether someone has a high risk of developing Alzheimer's disease before they have any symptoms, mental health professionals have worried what the psychological fallout of that knowledge might be. More...

  • More Education May Slow Start of Early-Onset Alzheimer's

    Among people who have the gene that carries a heightened risk for early-onset Alzheimer's disease, a new study suggests that more education might slow the development of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. More...

  • Under 50 and Overweight? Your Odds for Dementia Later May Rise

    Need fresh motivation to lose some weight? New research suggests that young adults who are overweight or obese face a higher risk for dementia in their golden years. More...

  • 9/11 First Responders Have Higher Odds for Alzheimer's: Study

    First responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks appear to be at increased risk for Alzheimer's disease and dementia, new research suggests. More...

  • Could the Flu Shot Lower Your Risk for Alzheimer's?

    Getting vaccinated to protect against pneumonia and flu may offer an unexpected benefit -- a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease, new research suggests. More...

  • 45 More
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      Some people in their 90s stay sharp whether their brain harbors amyloid protein plaques -- a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease -- or not, but why? More...

    • Many Americans With Dementia Live in Homes With Guns

      Many people with dementia may have access to a gun in their home, yet few families have gotten advice from a doctor on how to handle the situation, a small new study finds. More...

    • Brain's Iron Stores May Be Key to Alzheimer's

      The progression of Alzheimer's disease may accelerate as iron deposits build up in the brain, a new study finds, hinting at a possible role for the mineral in mental decline. More...

    • Hormones May Explain Greater Prevalence of Alzheimer's in Women

      Women have more Alzheimer's disease-related changes in the brain than men, and this may be linked to hormonal disruptions at menopause, researchers say. More...

    • Middle-Age Obesity Linked to Higher Odds for Dementia

      If you've been looking for a good reason to slim down, consider this: Being obese at midlife appears to increase your odds for dementia. More...

    • Could Crohn's, Colitis Raise Dementia Risk?

      People with inflammatory bowel disease might be vulnerable to developing dementia, a new study suggests. More...

    • 5 Healthy Steps to Lower Your Odds for Alzheimer's

      A combination of healthy habits -- such as a good diet and regular exercise -- may lower your risk of Alzheimer's disease by as much as 60%, a new study suggests. More...

    • COVID-19 Brings New Challenges to Alzheimer's Caregiving

      Caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease comes with daily challenges and disruptions, and those have only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. More...

    • Healthier Heart, Better Brain in Old Age

      Preventing heart disease may protect you from dementia, researchers say. More...

    • AHA News: Hearing Loss and the Connection to Alzheimer's Disease, Dementia

      Sound has the power to stimulate the brain, which is why hearing loss has the potential to have a profound effect on health – especially among older adults. More...

    • Brain Plaques Signal Alzheimer's Even Before Other Symptoms Emerge: Study

      Even before symptoms develop, the brains of people with early Alzheimer's disease have high levels of amyloid protein plaques, a new study reveals. More...

    • Certain Gene Might Help Shield At-Risk People From Alzheimer's

      People who carry a gene called APOE4 face an increased risk of Alzheimer's. But that effect may be lessened if they got luckier with a different gene, researchers have found. More...

    • How to Connect With Nursing Home Patients in Quarantine

      U.S. nursing homes, assisted living centers and other long-term care facilities have closed their doors to outsiders due to the coronavirus pandemic, making it difficult for residents and their families to stay connected. More...

    • How to Ease Loved Ones With Alzheimer's Through the Pandemic

      The coronavirus pandemic is throwing Americans' daily lives into disarray, and such disruptions are especially hard on people with Alzheimer's disease. More...

    • Caring for Dementia Patient During Pandemic? Try These Stress-Busting Tips

      The coronavirus pandemic will put extra stress on caregivers of loved ones with dementias, so the Alzheimer's Foundation of America offers some advice. More...

    • Recovery From Mild Brain Trauma Takes Longer Than Expected: Study

      Less than half of patients with a sports-related mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) recover within two weeks, new research shows. More...

    • Daily Aspirin Won't Stop Dementia, Study Finds

      Millions of Americans pop a low-dose aspirin each day to help ward off heart issues, but a new study finds that protection may not extend to dementia. More...

    • Heart Drug Combos Might Also Lower Your Dementia Risk: Study

      Certain combinations of cholesterol and blood pressure drugs may do more than help the heart -- they might also lower a person's risk of dementia, a new study finds. More...

    • U.S. Primary Care Docs Unprepared for Surge in Alzheimer's Cases

      Many U.S. primary care doctors worry they aren't ready to care for the growing ranks of Americans with Alzheimer's disease, a new report suggests. More...

    • Maria Shriver Sounds the Alarm on Women and Alzheimer's

      Why are two out of three people struck by Alzheimer's disease women? More...

    • Traumatic Brain Injuries Raise Risk of Psychiatric Ills in Soldiers

      U.S. soldiers who suffer a moderate or severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) are more likely to suffer other mental health woes than those with other serious injuries, a new study finds. More...

    • Growing Up in U.S. 'Stroke Belt' Bad for the Brain Later in Life

      Americans who grew up in the swath of the South known as the Stroke Belt are more likely to develop thinking declines later in life, even if they moved away as adults, a new study suggests. More...

    • Two Experimental Drugs Disappoint With Inherited Alzheimer's

      Two experimental drugs do not appear to slow memory loss or mental decline in patients in the early stages of a rare, inherited form of Alzheimer's disease, according to initial results from a clinical trial. More...

    • Gene Variant Ups Dementia Risk in Parkinson's Patients: Study

      A genetic variant associated with Alzheimer's disease increases the risk of dementia in people with Parkinson's disease, researchers say. More...

    • When Dementia Harms Speech, Native Language Matters

      Dementia patients may develop distinct speech and reading problems depending on their native language, a new study finds. More...

    • Even 1 Night's Bad Sleep Can Raise Levels of a Brain 'Marker' for Alzheimer's

      Poor sleep has been linked to the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and now a new study suggests a possible reason why. More...

    • AHA News: Worried About Dementia? Check This Blood Pressure Number

      The top number on a blood pressure test is widely viewed as the best gauge of a person's overall risk for heart disease. But the bottom number could be important when it comes to evaluating the chance of a person having scars on their brain that could be an indicator for dementia, stroke or falls. More...

    • Study Might Point Alzheimer's Research in Whole New Direction

      A new brain scanning technique is shaking up what researchers thought they knew about Alzheimer's disease. More...

    • More Doubt That Plaques in the Brain Cause Alzheimer's

      Researchers reporting Dec. 30 in the journal Neurology have found that early declines in memory and thinking seen in Alzheimer's patients tend to occur before amyloid plaques begin to appear in the brain, not after. More...

    • Can Air Pollution Take a Toll on Your Memory?

      Air pollution may trigger Alzheimer's-like brain changes and speed memory decline in older adults, a new study suggests. More...

    • Animal Study Offers Hope for Treating Traumatic Brain Injuries

      In a finding that might one day counter some of the damage of severe brain injury in humans, researchers report that embryonic neurons implanted in brain-injured mice helped resurrect memory and eased seizures. More...

    • Almost Half of Older Americans Fear Dementia, Try Untested Ways to Fight It

      Many Americans believe they are likely to develop dementia -- and they often turn to unproven ways to try to better their odds, a new study suggests. More...

    • People Who Can't Read Face 2-3 Times Higher Dementia Risk

      Could illiteracy up your odds for dementia? That's the suggestion of a study that found seniors who couldn't read or write were two to three times more likely to develop dementia than those who could. More...

    • Education a Buffer Against Alzheimer's Among Blacks: Study

      Higher levels of education may counter the genetic risk of Alzheimer's disease among older black adults, a new study indicates. More...

    • Down Syndrome Carries Raised Risk of Dementia by 55

      Most people with Down syndrome have dementia by age 55, a new study shows. More...

    • A Gene Kept One Woman From Developing Alzheimer's -- Could It Help Others?

      Could one woman's rare genetic mutation one day have a global impact on dementia risk? More...

    • Number of Americans With Dementia Will Double by 2040: Report

      Nearly 13 million Americans will have dementia by 2040 -- nearly twice as many as today, a new report says. More...

    • Is Head Injury Causing Dementia? MRI Might Show

      When a loved one shows signs of dementia, sometimes a head injury is the cause and MRI scans can help prevent a misdiagnosis of Alzheimer's, researchers report. More...

    • Family Can Help Keep Delirium at Bay After Surgery

      Many older hospital patients suffer delirium after surgery, but a new program that involves the patient's family in recovery may help, a new study suggests. More...

    • Pro Soccer Players More Likely to Develop Dementia: Study

      Former professional soccer players have a significantly increased risk of death from brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, a new study finds. More...

    • Your Personality as a Teen May Predict Your Risk of Dementia

      Could your personality as a teen forecast your risk for dementia a half-century later? Very possibly, say researchers, who found that dementia risk is lower among seniors who were calm, mature and energetic high schoolers. More...

    • What Helps Calm Agitated Dementia Patients?

      Dealing with the agitation, anxiety and aggression that often come with dementia is one of the most challenging aspects of caring for someone with this brain disorder. More...

    • AHA News: Growing – and Aging – Hispanic Population at Risk for Dementia

      The Hispanic population over 65 will nearly quadruple in the next 40 years, eventually representing nearly 1 in 5 older Americans. And growing alongside the population will be the daunting challenge of age-related dementia. More...

    • AHA News: Yo-Yoing Blood Pressure Could Be Bad for Those With Alzheimer's

      Fluctuating blood pressure may be associated with worsening dementia in people with Alzheimer's disease, according to new research. More...

    • Give Seniors a Memory Check at Annual Checkups, Experts Say

      Many older people show evidence of mental decline, called mild cognitive impairment, but doctors often miss this sometimes early sign of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. More...

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