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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Children with Dementia

Q. I have a 12-year-old nephew with dementia. We were trying to find information on causes and treatments of dementia in children. All the information we have found is of dementia in adults in the later years of their lives. How do we find information on the effects of dementia on children?

A. The reason you are having trouble finding information is that dementia is very rare in children and adolescents. The vast majority of individuals with dementia are elderly, as you know, and most of them have Alzheimer's Disease. I'm sorry to hear that your nephew has apparently been diagnosed with dementia. It is important to realize, however, that dementia is really a syndrome--a collection of signs and symptoms--and not a specific disorder.

Dementia involves severe deficits in memory, calculation, abstract thinking, and executive behavior. By definition, dementia is severe enough to cause impaired social, vocational, or psychological function--it's not just a matter of forgetting where you put the car keys! It would be very important to find out what the presumed cause of your nephew's dementia is; otherwise, learning about its effects is very difficult. For example, dementia in children may be caused by stroke, head trauma, brain tumor, hydrocephalus (water on the brain), endocrine conditions (such as low thyroid function), and nutritional deficiencies (such as low vitamin B12 levels).

Another cause of dementia in children is Rett Syndrome, a severe and progressive disease of the brain that sometimes runs in families. Unlike Alzheimer's Disease, some dementias are reversible or at least arrestable, once the cause has been found. Of course, I don't know if that's true in your nephew's case, but it certainly bears investigation.

You can obtain more information on childhood dementias in the chapter by Dr. Elsa Shapiro (see website www.peds.umn.edu/neuropsych/Shapiro.htm) and M. Balthazor, in the book, Pediatric Neuropsychology: Research, Theory, and Practice, Guildford Press, 1999. Consulting with a pediatric neuropsychiatrist in your area may also be helpful in clarifying your nephew's condition.

Other Resources:

June 2002

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