Raising awareness of Dementia and supporting families

What is dementia?

Some memory loss is common as we get older. However memory loss can also be an early sign of an illness called dementia. Dementia is a decline of reasoning, memory and other mental abilities (the cognitive functions). This decline eventually impairs the ability to carry out everyday activities such as driving, household chores and even personal care such as bathing, dressing and feeding (often called activities of daily living, or ADLs).

Dementia is most common in elderly people; it used to be called senility and was considered a normal part of ageing. We now know that dementia is not a normal part of ageing, but is caused by a number of underlying medical conditions that can occur in both elderly and younger persons.

In some cases dementia can be reversed with proper medical treatment. In others, it is permanent and usually gets worse over time.

Facts and figures about dementia

  • The Alzheimer's Society estimates that dementia currently affects over 750,000 people in the UK, which will rise to more than a million by 2025. Over 18,000 people with dementia are aged under 65 years. Dementia affects one person in 20 aged over 65, and one person in five aged 80
  • There are about 14,000 people with dementia among the minority ethnic communities. However, many services for these people remain inappropriate and inaccessible.

Types of dementia

There are different types of dementia, caused in different ways:
  • Alzheimer's - physical causes such as memory loss, communication problems, anxiety or aggression.
  • Vascular dementia - where the brain is deprived of oxygen.
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies - too much protein builds up in the brain and changes in concentration, language skills and memory problems occur.
  • Pick disease or fronto-temporal dementia - affects the front of the brain resulting in a behavioural change in the person.

Symptoms of dementia

Whilst dementia can affect different people in different ways, there are common symptoms which include:
  • Memory loss Declining memory, especially short-term memory, is the most common early symptom of dementia. People with ordinary forgetfulness can still remember other facts associated with the thing they have forgotten. For example, they may briefly forget their next-door neighbour. A person with dementia will not only forget their neighbour's name but also the context in which they knew them.
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks People with dementia often find it hard to complete everyday tasks that are so familiar we usually do not think about how to do them. A person with dementia may not know in what order to put clothes on or the steps for preparing a meal.
  • Problems with language Occasionally everyone has trouble finding the right word but a person with dementia often forgets simple words or substitutes unusual words, making speech or writing hard to understand.
  • Disorientation of time and place We sometimes forget the day of the week or where we are going, but people with dementia can become lost in familiar places such as the road they live in, or forget where they are or how they got there and not know how to get back home. A person with dementia may also confuse night and day.
  • Poor or decreased judgement People with dementia may dress inappropriately, wearing several layers of clothes on a warm day or very few on a cold day.
  • Problems with keeping track of things A person with dementia may find it difficult to follow a conversation, or keep up with paying their bills.
  • Misplacing things Anyone can temporarily misplace his or her wallet or keys. A person with dementia may put things in unusual places, such as an iron in the fridge or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
  • Changes in mood or behaviour Everyone can become sad or moody from time to time. A person with dementia may become unusually emotional and experience rapid mood swings for no apparent reason. Alternatively, a person with dementia may show less emotion than was usual previously.
  • Changes in personality A person with dementia may seem different from his or her usual self in ways that are difficult to pinpoint. They may become suspicious, irritable, depressed, apathetic or anxious and agitated especially in situations where memory problems are causing difficulties.
  • Loss of initiative At times everyone can become tired of housework, business activities or social obligations. However, a person with dementia may become very passive, sitting in front of the television for hours, sleeping more than usual or appearing to lose interest in hobbies.

Causes of dementia

There are a number of diseases and conditions that can cause dementia. For many people, however, there is still the question "Why?" Dementia becomes more common as we get older and is slightly more common in women than in men. But what causes some people to have Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia, and not other people?
  • Genetics Some conditions causing dementia, such as Huntington disease are hereditary. People with Down's syndrome seem to be at increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. It is thought that there may be genetic risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, but the vast majority of cases do not have a direct family link.
  • Blood pressure and heart disease High blood pressure and heart/vasicular disease are linked to increased risk of developing dementia. As well as increased risk of vascular dementia, people who have high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels also have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
  • Head injuries People who have had a serious head injury (e.g. a car accident) or repeated head injuries (e.g. professional boxers) are at increased risk of developing dementia.
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