Behavioral problems in dementia, how common are they and is there any help for it?

Behavioral problems in dementia, how common are they and is there any help for it?

Nitin K Sethi, MD


I recently saw a 75-year-old patient in my office which has prompted me to write this post. His wife brought him in  for memory problems. As I took the history, I realised that it was not memory problems per se that was bothering her, it was his change in behavior. Recently he had become aggressive, at times verbally and physically abusive to her. True he had some memory difficulties which were apparent in the history. He had lost his way once and got confused when he could not recall the names of his grandchildren at a family get together. But as I took his history and asked him questions, I found him to have a good fund of general knowledge. He was aware of recent events like the election of President Obama and the war between Israel and Hamas. He was physically active and liked to cycle around the neighbourhood. But it was his change in behavior which was causing a strain in his relationship with his wife and she was having a difficult time taking care of him and administering all his medications.

The patient above obviously has dementia settling in. One can argue about the type of dementia (is it Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia such as fronto-temporal dementia? You can read more about the same on my website But what I wanted to stress in this post was the prevalence of behavioral problems in dementia. Behavioral problems are common in all forms of dementia and are a frequent cause of caregiver stress and burnout.  Patients with dementia may present witha multitude of behavioral issues. They may either become too aggressive and hard to control (verbally and physically abusive they may lash out at loved ones when they attempt to nurse them) or they may become aphathic with loss of motivation and drive. Caregivers may complain that they are listless, just sit in one place thoughout the day and do not attempt any new task on their own.

I want to stress that caregivers need to understand that these behavioral problems are a part and parcel of the dementia complex. Lot of people just associate dementia with memory problems, little realising that the disorder is more pervasive. Thankfully now there are many drugs which can control some of these behavioral issues, thus making life easier for caregivers. These range from antidepressants to antipsychotic drugs apart from cognitive and behavioral therapy.

My advise to my readers is this.  If any of you has a loved one with dementia, learn to recognize behavioral problems early on. Bring them to the attention of the doctor since many of them can be effectively treated.