"The doctor said my husband is ‘senile’ and didn’'t say anything about Alzheimer’s disease." This is a comment frequently heard by the staff at the Alzheimer's Resource Center. Actually, after talking about the visit to the doctor it is often learned that the actual diagnosis was ‘senile dementia.’ This is not “senility,” but is the medical term used for a group of symptoms. Senile dementia describes a global decline in intellectual ability sufficiently severe enough to interfere with a person’s daily functioning. The word dementia (pronounced de-men-sha) comes from two Latin words meaning, “mind” and “away.” It means a loss of mental powers. Before the age of 65, the term “pre-senile dementia” is used.
Often on the first visit to the doctor there isn’t enough information through testing to put a classification to the senile dementia. Many times the doctor will want to leave the diagnosis ‘general’ until further observation or until follow-up tests are done a few months or years later. Then, if the treatable and reversible conditions are excluded and by observing the patient the doctor feels it is time to add a classification, he may call it Senile Dementia of the Alzheimer's Type (SDAT). Dementia is separated into many different disorders which include Multi-infarct Dementia (15-20% of all dementias), Stroke Dementia, and Parkinson Syndrome. Fifty to sixty per cent of all dementias are Alzheimer'’s, and that is why we hear about this disease more than others.
Hardening of the arteries was once used incorrectly as a catch-all term to explain the cause of the dementia illness. This term is often used instead of the word, arteriosclerosis, which is a condition marked by loss of elasticity, thickening and hardening of the arteries. People used to believe that hardening of the arteries resulted in decreased blood flow to the brain, rather than inadequate circulation, which causes the problem.
Whatever the classification, which can only be accurately determined after death through a neuropathology study, the patient and family are devastated both financially and emotionally. We encourage families to consider plans for post-mortem studies, which will reveal the definitive diagnosis. This is important for genetic reasons since one form of Alzheimer’s may be inherited.