It is estimated that 3.4 million individuals in the United States suffer from some form of dementia, and the numbers are rising quickly as people live longer. Dementia, as a broad term, is a condition of a sudden loss of cognitive ability in a previously unimpaired person, beyond what might be expected from normal aging.
Loss of function in the areas of language, memory, attention, and problem solving may all be present in various stages of disability. In most cases of dementia, it is irreversible. Specific causes are numerous, from individual events (brain damage from surgery, trauma, seizures, alcohol abuse, stroke) to neurodegenerative (Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, vascular dementia), to infectious disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob, AIDS), and any number of metabolic disorders (ex. Multiple Sclerosis, Niemann Pick disease).
A number of different tests may be utilized to determine the cause of dementia, such as blood tests and medical imaging, but the first step is always a cognitive test of abilities, such as a Mini-Mental state examination, or the Informant Questionnaire on Cognitive Decline in the Elderly (IQCODE). Treatment for Alzheimer's disease specifically includes medications like Tacrine (Cognex), donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), rivastigmine (Exelon) and Memantine (Namenda). Eventually most patients with irreversible and progressive dementia will require full-time nursing care.