Getting Disability for Dementia

Social Security disability applicants with certain kinds of dementia (or mixed dementia) can have their disability decision fast-tracked.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law
Updated 2/05/2024

A diagnosis of dementia can cause significant struggles, especially as the condition progresses. Physical and cognitive symptoms can interfere with your ability to finish tasks, follow conversations, and complete basic physical movements without difficulty. When dementia begins to interfere with your ability to work full-time, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

Is Dementia Considered a Disability?

Often, yes. Some kinds of dementia are classified as Compassionate Allowances, a category of very serious medical conditions that can flag a disability application for fast-tracked approval. Although the disability determination process typically takes up to several years, applicants with a disorder on the list can get benefits in as little as a few weeks.

Several types of advanced dementia are found on the Compassionate Allowances list. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mixed dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, frontotemporal dementia, or ALS/Parkinsonism dementia complex (ALS/PDC), make sure the agency has all the medical evidence needed to expedite the disability application.

Mixed Dementia

Mixed dementia is a term describing several types of dementia, caused by multiple sources, that exist at the same time. The most common form of mixed dementia consists of vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Symptoms may include confusion, poor memory, trouble concentrating, speech and language issues, behavioral disturbances, and emotional problems.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies

Dementia with Lewy bodies is similar to, and often occurs, with Parkinson's disease. Lewy bodies are abnormal deposits of protein that form in the brain, affecting brain chemistry that can cause behavioral, cognitive, and mood changes.

Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal dementia results from the loss of nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobe is responsible for many functions, such as interacting with other people, moving around, and controlling speech. The temporal lobe helps to manage your emotions, retrieve memories, and process sensory information.

ALS/Parkinsonism Dementia Complex

ALS/PDC is a rare, malignant form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) caused by widespread degeneration of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include slow physical movements, tremors, and forgetfulness.

Whether or not you've been diagnosed with a type of dementia that qualifies for quicker claim processing under the Compassionate Allowances program, the Social Security Administration (SSA) still needs to evaluate your medical records to determine whether you're disabled.

Qualifying for Disability With Dementia

In order to determine disability, the SSA will first look to see if the documented dementia symptoms meet one of the listed impairments in the agency's "Blue Book" of disabling conditions. For example, vascular dementia without behavioral disturbances may be evaluated under the neurological listings, while vascular dementia with behavioral disturbances might meet (or equal) one of the listed impairments for mental disorders.

Getting Disability for Dementia by Meeting a Listing

Social Security can evaluate disability claims based on dementia under several different listings. You'll need documentation of specific physical or mental functional limitations to get disability under the relevant listing. Here's an overview of the criteria for several listings relevant to dementia.

  • Listing 11.04 for vascular insult to the brain requires evidence of either ineffective speech or communication; disorganization of motor functions in at least two extremities that cause problems using arms, legs, or hands; or serious limitations in both physical and mental functioning (such as focusing on tasks or getting along with others). Vascular dementia can be evaluated under this listing.
  • Listing 11.17 for neurodegenerative disorders requires either an inability to independently perform basic motor functions like standing up, or serious limitations in both physical and mental functioning. Lewy body dementia is often evaluated under this listing.
  • Listing 12.02 for neurocognitive disorders requires evidence of a serious decline in cognitive abilities such as memory retention, complex attention, executive function, use of language, "perceptual-motor" skills (not bumping into objects), and social awareness. Mixed dementia is often evaluated under this listing.

Having an opinion letter from a regular doctor, particularly a neurologist or neuropsychologist, can increase the chances that Social Security will approve a claim for dementia. The agency values the insights of treating providers, especially when it involves a mental decline over time.

Getting Disability for Dementia with Reduced Functional Capacity

Early stages of dementia might not produce symptoms severe enough to meet the requirements of a listed impairment. But even mild to moderate cognitive difficulties can have an impact on your ability to work, especially when you're 50 years of age or older. If the SSA determines that functional limitations in your residual functional capacity keep you from performing your past work or any other jobs, you'll qualify for disability benefits.

What Evidence Do You Need to Get Disability for Dementia?

Medical evidence is the foundation of a disability claim. Make sure that your application (or that of the friend or family member you're helping) contains all relevant documentation, including doctors' clinic notes, hospital records, imaging results, and lab test results. The SSA will be on the lookout for any markers of dementia, such as an MRI showing the presence of Lewy bodies in the brain or a neuropsychological evaluation showing a significant drop in IQ.

Written statements from third parties who are close to the applicant can also be helpful. Before attending a disability hearing in front of an administrative law judge, you should evaluate whether symptoms of dementia might prevent the applicant from providing reliable testimony. In some cases, it may be necessary for a witness to be present and testify at the hearing as well.

Applying for Disability Benefits With Dementia

The SSA provides several methods you can use to start an application for disability benefits.

  • File online at Social Security's website.
  • Call 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, to speak with a representative.
  • Go in-person to your local Social Security field office.

Applying for disability benefits can be stressful even in the best of times, but for people with dementia, the process can quickly become overwhelming. Consider contacting an experienced disability lawyer for help. An attorney can handle all communications with the SSA, make sure important appeal deadlines are met, and gather important medical records.

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