Dementia is an umbrella term that covers over 200 subtypes of dementia, the most common being Alzheimer’s Disease. The definition of dementia describes a progressive condition characterised by abnormal brain changes resulting in decreased thinking skills (cognitive ability), memory and changes in behaviour. These symptoms interfere with a person’s daily life and ability to complete normal activities.
Dementia is more common in those over 65 years old, however, there are some types that appear in younger people (45 -55 years old), known as young onset dementia. In the UK there are over 850,000 people living with dementia, a number that is only expected to rise. Around 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 have dementia.
What Causes Dementia?
Dementia is a condition that affects the brain cells (neurones). By damaging these cells, dementia impairs their ability to send messages to one another, which in turn negatively affects the brain’s ability to do certain tasks, resulting in dementia symptoms. As dementia is a progressive condition, as time goes on more neurones get damaged and die. This means the effected brain areas shrink and symptoms get progressively worse in the later stages of dementia.
Different types of dementia are caused by different things. With many types of dementia, we still aren’t sure what causes the damage to brain cells, but for others we have a better idea. For example, Vascular Dementia (the second most common type of dementia) is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, often as a result of a stroke or series of small strokes.
What are the Symptoms of Dementia?
Everyone experiences dementia differently. How someone experiences dementia can depend on: the type of dementia they have, what stage they’re at, where their dementia started, their previous lifestyle and much more. In general, dementia affects someone’s thinking ability, memory and behaviour. Dementia symptoms get progressively worse over time – read about symptoms in the later stages of dementia.
People with dementia can get quite confused, disorientated and have difficulty with time and place. They might get up in the middle of the night, confuse faces or surroundings or get worried that they should be elsewhere e.g. picking up their kids from school or at work. People living with dementia might also have difficulty concentrating or completing tasks they used to be able to do.
Dementia often affects the person's short term memory, much more than usual ageing would. People with dementia can forget people and places which can be upsetting for them, their carer and their family. Their memory is also likely to get progressively worse as the condition goes on. People with dementia often forget more recent years of their lives and instead think that they are much younger than they actually are.
Some symptoms of dementia affect the person's behaviour and personality. People with dementia are sometimes known to be quite aggressive and angry whereas others might be more withdrawn and introverted. Mood swings, depression and anxiety are some of the most common behavioural and personality changes. See more advice below on 'Sundowning.' In addition to these changes, communication can get harder and someone with dementia will talk and engage less. They might also lose their ability to read, write and speak coherently.
Types of Dementia
There are over 200 conditions that fall under the term “dementia”. The four most common types of dementia account for over 90% of dementia diagnoses. Different types of dementia have different causes which can slightly change the list of common symptoms. Some dementia types also have different average life expectancies. Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia, is responsible for around 2/3rds of all dementia cases – approximately 500,000 people in the UK. You can find out more about the four most common types of dementia by clicking on the tabs below.
Even though dementia and Alzheimer's are often used interchangeably, they are different. Read what the differences are between dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.
Getting an early diagnosis is important. For some types of dementia there are treatments that can help slow the progression of dementia in its early stages. An early diagnosis can also give you and your family more time to plan future care, legal and financial responsibilities. However, diagnosing dementia early is hard and relies upon the family noticing symptoms, memory tests, a doctor’s careful study of a person’s medical and family history and assessment over a period of time. Even when a doctor is certain that a person has dementia, it’s still very hard to know which type of dementia they have. At this point you might be recommended to a specialist.
The first step is to talk to your parents’ GP about any concerns you have about your parent’s memory or behaviour. If they suspect dementia, they will refer them to a specialised memory clinic who will help get a an official diagnosis of dementia.
After receiving a dementia diagnosis, it is important to get your parents legal affairs in order. This will make future care much easier to manage. We recommed a Lasting Power of Attorney as the first step. Read our guide.
Caring For and Treating Someone with Dementia
Caring for someone with dementia is incredibly hard. As a progressing condition, their care needs will change and grow over time. Some common things people struggle with when caring for someone with dementia include getting them to eat more and helping them to get a good night’s sleep. Beyond their immediate care needs you will have to consider which future care option will be most suitable for them and start to get their affairs in order.
As far as treatments are concerned, unfortunately there is no cure for dementia yet. There are medicines that can help slow the progression of some types of dementia at an early stage but for the most part drugs that doctors prescribe will be to manage secondary symptoms like depression, anxiety and aggression.
It is important that as a dementia carer you have a good support network around you and that you try to balance your care responsibilities with time for yourself. Dementia activity groups and cafés are a great way to supply your relative with fun, different activities as well as allowing you to meet people in similar situations and find out more about dementia care resources in your area.