Information on Dementia
We support the work of the Alzheimer’s Society and closely follow developments in their area of expertise. We applaud their vision of a radically improved world for people with dementia and ensure that our staff take advantage of the wealth of information available from them. For more information, visit: www.alzheimers.org.uk
What is Dementia?
The term ‘dementia’ is used to describe the symptoms that occur when the brain is affected by specific diseases and conditions. This includes Alzheimer’s disease, strokes and many other rarer conditions. Symptoms of dementia include loss of memory, confusion and problems with speech and understanding. Dementia is progressive, which means the symptoms will gradually get worse. How fast dementia progresses will depend on the individual. Each person is unique and will experience dementia in their own way.
Symptoms of dementia include:
- Loss of Memory − for example, forgetting the way home from the shops, or being unable to remember names and places, or what happened earlier the same day.
- Mood Changes − particularly as parts of the brain that control emotion are affected by disease. People with dementia may also feel sad, frightened or angry about what is happening to them.
- Communication Problems − a decline in the ability to talk, read and write.
- In the later stages of dementia, the person affected will have problems carrying out everyday tasks, and will become increasingly dependent on other people.
What Causes Dementia?
There are several diseases and conditions that cause dementia. These include:
- Alzheimer’s disease − this is the most common cause of dementia. During the course of the disease, the chemistry and structure of the brain changes, leading to the death of brain cells
- Vascular disease − the brain relies on a network of vessels to bring it oxygen-bearing blood. If the oxygen supply to the brain fails, brain cells are likely to die and this can cause the symptoms of vascular dementia. These symptoms can occur either suddenly, following a stroke, or over time through a series of small strokes
- Dementia with Lewy bodies − this form of dementia gets its name from tiny spherical structures that develop inside nerve cells. Their presence in the brain leads to the degeneration of brain tissue. Memory, concentration and language skills are affected. This form of dementia shares some characteristics with Parkinson’s disease
- Fronto-temporal dementia (including Pick’s disease) − in fronto-temporal dementia, damage is usually focused in the front part of the brain. At first, personality and behaviour are more affected than memory.
- Rarer causes of dementia
There are many other rarer diseases that cause dementia, including progressive supranuclear palsy, Korsakoff’s syndrome, Binswanger’s disease, HIV and AIDS, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). People with multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease may also be more likely to develop dementia.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Some individuals may have difficulty remembering to do things, but a doctor may feel the symptoms are not severe enough to warrant the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. When this condition occurs, some doctors will use the term ‘mild cognitive impairment’ (MCI). Recent research has shown that a small number of individuals with MCI have an increased risk of progressing to Alzheimer’s disease. However, the conversion rate from MCI to Alzheimer’s is small (10-15%), so a diagnosis of MCI does not always mean that the person will go on to develop Alzheimer’s.
Who Gets Dementia?
There are about 750,000 people in the UK with dementia. Dementia mainly affects older people. However, it can affect younger people: there are over 16,000 people in the UK under the age of 65 who have dementia. Dementia can affect both men and women. Scientists are investigating the genetic background to dementia. It does appear that in a few rare cases the diseases that cause dementia can be inherited. Some people with a particular genetic make-up have a higher risk than others of developing dementia.
How Can I Tell If I Have Dementia?
Many people fear they have dementia, particularly if they think their memory is getting worse. Becoming forgetful doesn’t necessarily mean that you have dementia: memory loss can be an effect of ageing, and it can also be a sign of stress or depression. In rare cases, dementia-like symptoms can be caused by vitamin deficiencies or a brain tumour. If you’re worried about yourself, or someone close to you, it is worth discussing your concerns with your GP.
It is very important to get a proper diagnosis. A diagnosis will help the doctor rule out any illnesses that might have similar symptoms to dementia, including depression. Having a diagnosis may also mean it is possible to be prescribed drugs for Alzheimer’s disease. Whether you’re someone with dementia or a carer, a diagnosis can help you prepare and plan for the future. Dementia can be diagnosed by a doctor, either a GP or a specialist. The specialist may be a geriatrician (a doctor specialising in the care of older people), a neurologist (someone who concentrates on diseases of the nervous system) or a psychiatrist (a mental health specialist). The doctor may carry out a number of tests. These are designed to test the person’s memory and their ability to perform daily tasks.
Can Dementia be Cured or Prevented?
Most forms of dementia can’t be cured, although research is continuing into developing drugs, vaccines and treatments. Drugs have been developed that can temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms of some types of dementia. At present, we are not sure what causes most of the diseases that lead to dementia. This means it is difficult to be sure what we can do to prevent dementia itself. However, the evidence seems to indicate that a healthy diet and lifestyle may help protect against dementia. In particular, not smoking, exercising regularly, avoiding fatty foods and keeping mentally active into old age may help to reduce the risk of developing vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
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