Written by Edward Shehab
Fact checked by The Brain Blog Team
People worldwide are having conversations about dementia. It's becoming more common and less stigmatized to talk about in families and communities. You may wonder if it’s considered a mental illness or a neurocognitive disorder.
Despite the health care industry’s best efforts to educate the public about dementia and mental illness, there is still a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation out in the world. Couple that with how closely dementia resembles some symptoms of depression or schizophrenia, and it’s no wonder there’s confusion.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association updated the official guide for mental health professionals in the US. This book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health, was first published in 1952. The most recent version (DSM-5) answers the question, “Is dementia a mental illness?” by describing dementia as a neurocognitive disorder. Scholars and scientists debated if this change was helpful or not in articles with titles like "Dementia and DSM-5: Changes, Cost, and Confusion" and "Mild Neurocognitive Disorder: An Old Wine in a New Bottle."
Dementia and mental illness can look similar, but they are very different. Mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can cause symptoms that imitate dementia. And conversely, Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia could be mistaken for a mental illness. This is just one reason it is so essential to get a diagnosis from a medical professional.
Common symptoms of dementia include memory loss, forgetfulness, difficulty in understanding language, and impaired judgment.
On the other hand, mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can cause hallucinations and delusions, which are not present with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia. Dementia is also characterized by a gradual decline, while mental illness usually presents itself in episodic phases that eventually end.
The key to understanding the difference between mental illness and dementia is recognizing two different illnesses with some similar and some unique symptoms. Dementia usually progresses slowly over time; it also causes memory, language skills, judgment, or dispositions. Mental illnesses like anxiety disorders (like panic attacks), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia can sometimes mimic the early stages of dementia because they cause difficulties in thinking for other reasons besides Alzheimer's disease.
Professionals categorize cognition symptoms as mild or major, according to how severe they are. The most recognizable symptoms are challenges with planning, making decisions, staying focused, remembering things, and maintaining appropriate behavior around others.
As you might imagine, anyone wondering "Is Dementia A Mental Illness?" has more important questions that need to be answered and quickly.
A primary care physician is the best place to start to get answers when you or a loved one struggles with memory or cognition. Chances are, there is already an established relationship. Primary care physicians are very successful with diagnosing dementia. For patients over 65, doctors who specialize in senior care are even better. Other options are neurologists and psychiatrists. If you’re still asking, "Is Dementia A Mental Illness?" these professionals will be able to point you or your loved one in a helpful direction right away.
At the initial diagnostic appointment, the doctor will examine the patient physically and ask questions about medical history and symptoms related to memory loss. It’s helpful to bring a family member to answer some of these questions during this first appointment. During this visit, cognitive (thinking) tests will typically be conducted to measure focus, memory, and decision-making skills. This appointment doesn’t have to be difficult, as most physicians are empathetic and kind when discussing concerns with a patient and their family.
If the doctor feels that more exploration of possible brain health issues is required, his team will schedule brain scans, blood tests, and a psychiatric evaluation.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms we've mentioned here, it is important to consult your primary care physician. There's a lot that goes into diagnosing and treating mental illness or dementia, so there may be some other co-occurring issues involved. Your doctor can help determine if these additional factors need to be addressed for treatment to work most effectively.
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