Dementia Praecox

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 27, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Dementia Praecox is a designation that is no longer being used and is now replaced by schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that may impact a person’s thoughts, behavior, speech, and perception of reality. It generally develops between the late teenage years and the mid-30s. 

This article provides a comprehensive overview of dementia praecox (schizophrenia), including its definition, causes, symptoms, and treatment.

Help is available for schizophrenia

Definition of dementia praecox (schizophrenia)

Dementia praecox was first popularized as a diagnostic concept by Emil Kraepelin, a German psychiatrist, in the late nineteenth century. During this time, dementia praecox and manic depressive psychosis were considered the two major psychotic disorders. 

Dementia praecox (schizophrenia) describes a group of mental disorders with similar symptoms, including hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking. The degeneration theory suggests that dementia praecox is a form of mental deterioration that involves an irreversible decline in mental functioning and a poor prognosis. On the other hand, manic depressive psychosis was classified as an episodic mood disorder that did not lead to impaired cognitive functioning.

While dementia praecox may not be in active use, Kraepelin’s concept of dementia praecox was interchangeable with schizophrenia. In 1918, the designation “schizophrenia” was suggested as an alternate term for dementia praecox. For modern researchers and mental health professionals, schizophrenia is the accepted term for the disorder once known as dementia praecox in psychiatric literature and science history publications.

The disease concept of psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia has evolved considerably since the historical concept of dementia praecox was first introduced, reflecting changes in our understanding of these disease processes. Since the nineteenth century, advancements in behavioral genetics have provided insights into the heritability and genetic risk factors linked to various psychiatric disorders, influencing the field of biological psychiatry and shaping contemporary diagnostic systems.

This article uses the modern designation of schizophrenia and current research about this mental illness.

What is schizophrenia?

According to the American Psychological Association, “schizophrenia is a serious mental illness characterized by incoherent or illogical thoughts, bizarre behavior and speech, and delusions or hallucinations, such as hearing voices. The age of onset is typically between the late teens and mid-30s.”

Causes of schizophrenia

The causes of schizophrenia are unknown. However, psychiatric and behavioral genetics research suggests that “a combination of physical, genetic, psychological, and environmental factors can make a person more likely to develop the condition.” This aligns with the idea that other psychiatric disorders, including manic depressive insanity, now known as bipolar disorder, may be linked to various factors.

Some individuals might be prone to schizophrenia due to genetics; others might experience a stressful or emotional life event that triggers the onset of this mental illness. Researchers currently don’t know why some individuals develop schizophrenia symptoms.

Here are some potential risk factors that may increase the likelihood of schizophrenia symptoms: 

  • Genetics: Evidence has not revealed a specific gene responsible for schizophrenia, but it appears to run in families 

  • Brain development: There may be subtle differences in the brain structure of individuals who experience schizophrenia symptoms 

  • Neurotransmitters: Those who experience schizophrenia symptoms might have different amounts of certain neurotransmitters in their brains 

  • Pregnancy and birth complications: Pregnancy complications, such as low birth weight, premature labor, and lack of oxygen during birth, are thought to affect brain development, which may increase the risk of the baby developing schizophrenia later in life

Here are some potential life events that may trigger schizophrenia to develop in individuals who are at risk: 

  • Stress: The primary psychological triggers for schizophrenia appear to be stressful life events like divorce, losing a job, losing a home, grief, the end of a relationship, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse*

  • Substance use: Some research suggests that using drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, LSD, or amphetamines may increase the risk of developing schizophrenia in individuals predisposed to the condition

These triggers or experiences do not cause schizophrenia. Instead, research suggests that they may trigger its development in individuals who are vulnerable to it. 

Symptoms of schizophrenia as a mental illness

According to the American Psychological Association, active schizophrenia can be characterized by episodes in which the person cannot distinguish reality from unreal experiences. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms can vary between individuals. For example, a person might start experiencing symptoms during their teenage years. However, as the person reaches early adulthood, the full spectrum of symptoms may become evident. 

The symptoms of schizophrenia fall into three major categories: 

  • Positive symptoms: Hallucinations, including visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoia, and exaggerated or distorted behaviors, beliefs, and perceptions 

  • Negative symptoms: A decrease in the ability to express emotion, speak, initiate plans, or partake in enjoyable activities 

  • Disorganized symptoms: Confused or disordered thinking and speech, bizarre behavior, abnormal movements, and challenges with logical thought processes 

Individuals experiencing schizophrenia symptoms might also struggle with attention, memory, and concentration. 

Treatment of schizophrenia

There is no known cure for schizophrenia at the time of this writing. However, there are treatment options that may help manage symptoms and improve the quality of life for many individuals. 

Practitioners of clinical psychiatry might recommend a combination of medication and therapy as a common approach to help manage schizophrenia symptoms. 

  • Medication: Antipsychotic medications may help reduce or control positive symptoms for some individuals. A psychiatrist may need to work with the patient to try different medications and doses to find the most effective option. 

  • Therapy: Individual talk therapy, family therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and social skills training may help individuals who experience schizophrenia learn coping strategies and improve social functioning. 

With treatment, many individuals who experience schizophrenia symptoms can successfully pursue their goals, maintain healthy relationships, and keep stable jobs. 

Online therapy for schizophrenia and other mental disorders

Help is available for schizophrenia

Therapy may offer numerous benefits that can improve the overall quality of life for individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia. Individuals may learn coping skills, improve communication skills, and gain insight into the symptoms they experience. It may also be helpful for individuals who experience other mental health problems alongside schizophrenia, such as personality disorders and major depression. A fundamental feature of therapy is the personalization of care that takes into account the complex nature of schizophrenia.

Online therapy offers a beneficial option for individuals who would like to partake in treatment from home. It’s often more affordable and provides an opportunity to connect with a broader range of professionals than local options. Like in-person treatment, remote therapy can provide individuals with emotional support and validation, creating a safe and supportive environment for discussing experiences and emotions. 

For individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, reducing symptoms is often one of the primary goals of therapy. Multiple studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in reducing positive and negative symptoms. Research shows that online therapy offers the same benefits as traditional treatment. 


Schizophrenia, once known as “Dementia Praecox,” is a severe mental illness that can impact a person's life in many ways. While the exact cause of the disorder is still unknown, research has identified risk factors and triggers that may contribute to its development.

Treatment for the disorder typically involves a combination of medication and therapy, which can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life. If you’d like to learn more, get started with BetterHelp, and we’ll connect you with a licensed professional based on your preferences and needs. Most people are connected with a therapist within 48 hours.

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